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Women's Tennis

The greatness of the Williams sisters inspires those who might take their crowns

Cori Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys are all chasing their legacy

In its genesis, greatness begins with the individual. It flourishes through coaching and practice, for sure, but it ultimately rests with one person and his or her indomitable will.

That journey begins in the proverbial mirror, a look into oneself to say, “I can do this, and there’s no one who can stop me.”

And so that greatness manifests itself into championships, acclaim and fame, which we are apt to talk about. The part we don’t talk about nearly as much is how that greatness manifests itself into others.

On Monday, Venus Williams looked into that proverbial mirror and saw someone else.

To be clear, this is Cori “Coco” Gauff’s moment. The 15-year-old Atlantan and youngest qualifying player ever at Wimbledon since it became professional made the most of her opportunity in a 6-4, 6-4 win. Still, it’s impossible to appreciate her win without acknowledging her idol.

“After the match, I just told her, ‘Thank you for everything [you] did,’ ” Gauff said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”

The idea of “passing the torch” is important in sports — and among black folks. Unfortunately, these talks can have roots in respectability politics and can cause a generation gap. That didn’t happen with Gauff. Her appreciation for Williams and the moment wouldn’t allow for it. Her words and her gestures exuded a maturity beyond her 15 years and 122 days.

So did her play. Gauff moved around the court with power and grace — not like a gazelle, because there are ways to define the athletic feats of black people without comparing us to animals.

Gauff’s mother, Candi, has a background in dance and gymnastics, so it may be more apropos to compare her to a dancer. Perhaps someone like Josephine Baker, who herself had to go to Europe to be recognized and had an ironic nickname: “Black Venus.”

After all, Baker was part of a renaissance, just like Gauff. Tennis’ black youth movement is full of surnames such as (Naomi) Osaka, (Sloane) Stephens and (Madison) Keys. And Harlem is known for its big stages, like the Apollo Theater.

Venus Williams (left) and Sloane Stephens (right) shake hands at the net after Stephens defeated Williams in the women’s singles semifinals of the 2017 US Open in New York.

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Wimbledon is Williams’ house. She is an “Apollo legend” in London. Five singles titles will give someone that distinction. It’s just hard to believe, that even with two appearances in major finals in 2017, Williams won her fifth Wimbledon title more than a decade ago. Injuries and illness — specifically, the autoimmune disease known as Sjogren’s syndrome — sidelined and sapped Williams.

Still, Williams’ legacy is profound, particularly in moments such as these, which was explained by her younger sister, Serena.

“It’s a great moment for [Cori] and for Venus,” Serena Williams said in an interview before Monday’s match. “[Cori’s] playing as a player that actually reminds me of Venus, just her body and everything.

“I know that they both want to win and go to the next round, and I think that would be really important for both of them.”

Their stories — Venus’, Serena’s and Cori’s — are the stories of tennis talent honed by fathers turned tennis coaches. Those stories also show how kids from Compton, California, and Atlanta can break through at elite tennis clubs that traditionally have separated and excluded themselves from black folks.

Monday also reinforced an idea that Venus and Serena Williams have bucked for many years. Black don’t crack — but tennis is a young woman’s game.

Naomi Osaka (right) and Serena Williams (left) at the net after the women’s final of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.


Such moments where one great player passes the baton to a newer talent are necessary not just for tennis but for the culture. For the race.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.