I can’t remember the first time I saw either of them on my television screen, Venus and Serena Williams, but I do remember watching a few of their matches back in their early days. I’m the least athletic person in the world, but I’m a deeply experienced spectator of several sports, so yes, I watched tennis matches when JBC or whatever the station was called back in the 90s used to show the grand slams. (I was a huge fan of Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras is bae to this day.) So I don’t know how I can’t recall their majors debuts, these two black girls just showing up when I’d never seen a black person in this sport before, let alone two. But I do remember seeing pictures and clips of them in action, beaded canerows flying. I remember there were braces involved at a certain point, too. I remember being shocked that black people played tennis. I was too young to know the significance of them existing in this space, but I would come to learn.
My first definite memory of a Williams sister in action was Venus at Wimbledon 2001. It was the summer after high school. I’d just moved to Spanish Town to live with my mother for the first time since third form. I was home alone during the days with nothing to do but watch TV, and Wimbledon was on, so I watched every match. I finally learned what a game and a set and duece and all those terms meant. But most importantly, I watched a black woman lift the trophy (or the dish, in this case—the Venus Rosewater Dish) and I remember being ecstatic about it simply because she looked like me.
Over the ensuing years, I began to research them, and I read articles about the girls and their parents, especially their father, the enigmatic, visionary Richard Williams. I devoured clips and interviews on YouTube. I was their fan anyway, but I became a STAN as I learned about how they came to be the superstars they are. I’ve read about and seen the barbs directed at them overtly and under quiet, the blatant racism, the double standards. I’ve waded into social media wars to defend my girls—especially Serena, after last year’s US Open final. (You try being wrongfully and publicly accused of cheating on your job and honestly tell me you wouldn’t lose your ish a little or a lot. And I dearly hope she took that fine out of Patrick’s pay. He knew better than to gesture in the first place, dammit! *takes several deep, calming breaths*)
One of those old clips that I watch every now and then is an interview of the girls and their father on a tennis court. The moment that dropped my jaw and sent shivers all over my back the first time I heard it (and still gives me goosies to this day) was 11-year-old Serena’s response when the interviewer asked, “If you were a tennis player, who would you want to be like?” Baby girl responded—clear as day and 100% serious, because she already knew just who the heck she was, “Well, I’d like other people to be like me.” Who even thinks like that? And at 11?! The self assurance jumped out. Richard and Oracene were clearly doing this parenting/coaching thing right.
Which brings me to today, and the emotional state I’m in as I follow the matches of the likes of Coco Gauff (I am loco for Coco myself!), Naomi Osaka, and Taylor Townsend. Serena’s words have come to pass. I followed the Osaka vs. Gauff match a couple hours ago just marvelling at these two young black women who’ve taken the sport by storm, who most likely wouldn’t be where they are had Venus and Serena never picked up tennis rackets. But because they did, and have revoluntionised the women’s game along the way, these two little girls could look at them on screen or read about them and want to be like them. Their success showed these girls that they could do it, too. And they’re doing it. Oh so well. And it made me cry a little. And the post match graciousness as Naomi invited Coco to share the interview with her did me right in.
There’s sisterhood there. Beyond that, there’s a certain freedom that this generation of black girl tennis players will have that Venus and Serena never did—and still don’t. They’ve been there to openly or privately welcome each of these black girls into the fold—welcomes they never received in their early days as they were seen as interlopers in the lily white echelons of tennis. Some of the barbs and stones that the media and commentators and tennis fans will throw at these young women will fall flat because they’ve seen Venus and Serena face them all and remain undeterred. And best believe there are barbs being thrown at them daily. Even though it’s been more than 20 years of the Williams sisters dealing with racism, racist sexism, and overall unfounded BS, haters still trot out some of the same rubbish. Coco is “too cocky” (read: confident); Taylor is “too big”; Naomi is “too emotional.” No matter what happens, they’ll still be “too” something for the tennis elite and those who think they’re elite—too “not white.” But I hope they persist, just as Venus and Serena still do to this day, because little black girls are looking at them now, too. (And little Asian and Blasian girls, too, for Naomi.)
It’s been a pleasure for me to see Coco just starring up the place. I “discovered” her last February when I came across a post about her being the youngest girls’ singles finalist at the 2017 US Open. I reposted it and said I’d be keeping an eye out for her in the future. Little did I know she’d come through like such a boss less than a year later. (Sidenote: What a girl move like young Venus, eeh?! I really do try not to compare them, but I honestly call her Young Vee in my head sometimes. Sorry, Coco!) I’m glad to see that Naomi is thriving and kicking butt after a rough patch following the Australian Open earlier this year. I’m LOVING the grit and badassery of Miss Taylor as she serves and volleys her way through the rounds, shaking off the criticisms of the naysayers who attack her game and her body with equal vitriol. I’ll be honest and say I never got into Sloane Stephens or Madison Keys, but I cheer for their wins when they get them, because I want to see all the #blackgirlmagic all over this sport, now and in the years to come.
And there will be more to come. I’m so excited about it! I know I’m going to be in tears the day Venus and Serena call time on their careers, and I might need a week to mourn because mi love dem like how Jesus love likkle children. But I’ll take heart because their legacy is as strong as they are. Just about every black girl in the sport right now will point to either one or both of the Williams sisters as her idol, her reason for picking up a racket. And I’m sure there are some black boys, too. It’s a beautiful and emotional thing for me to behold and it must be even more so for them. Imagine standing across the net from your legacy. My gosh man! And it’s not just about the optics. Remember they have, especially Venus, fought for equal pay for women at the majors and won.
Some people are trying to usher the Williams sisters into retirement because they’re 39 and 38 and “they should make way for the young girls now.” I say NAH! Hell nah! I need them to go until a voice says, “Go no more.” Before the day arrives when they’re no longer playing, I want to see Venus lift a trophy again. I want to see Serena lift her 24th, 25th…maybe even her 27th trophy. I don’t want there to be any asterisk beside her designation as the G.O.A.T. because elitist wypipo can trot out some ancient record from Jesus was a boy to relegate her to second place in history. As much as I’m cheering on this new crop of #blackgirltennismagic, I’m here for Rena beating allll their li’l butts on her way to HERstory, dang it. She can lose to them forever after that 25th title is sealed. 🤷 But at the end of the day, the future of women’s tennis is in good hands, and for little black girls coming up, the dream is even more accessible. That’s an awesome living legacy, if you ask me.