All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 10: Opening the Door

Cecil Harris: A few years after that explosive US Open final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, the two met again and another Grand Slam event, this time in the semifinals of the Australian Open. This was February of 2021 and Serena still had not captured another major title. Getting past Naomi in this tournament would get her one step closer to the 24th Grand Slam title she had been chasing. 


TV Announcer: Shaky at moments. Quickly got steady. And beat Serena at a major again in Mission 24. We'll continue. But it is again unfulfilled....


Cecil Harris: After Serena lost. She hugged Naomi, then she picked up her bag, waved to the crowd, and affectionately put her hand over her heart. The crowd cheered as she made her way off the court. 


TV Announcer: And you know what, Serena? Her legacy her legacy is sealed. Whether she ever wins another. 


Cecil Harris: After that tough loss, Serena had to debrief with reporters. 


Reporter: A really poignant moment when you walked off the court to a standing ovation and you put your hand over your heart. What was going through your head in that moment? 


Serena Williams: I don't know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see. 


Reporter: Some people wondered if this is you were almost saying farewell. 


Serena Williams: I don't know if I. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone. So. So. 


Cecil Harris: As Serena entered her late thirties, speculation about her retirement had reached a fever pitch. And in the end, she did let the world in on her plans. In a cover essay for Vogue's September 20, 22 issue, Serena announced, quote, I'm here to tell you that I'm evolving away from tennis. Suddenly, it seemed like the 2022 U.S. Open just days away would be Serena's very last professional tournament. In her essay, Serena explained that moving forward, she planned to focus on other important things in her life, like granting her daughter Olympia's wish of becoming a big sister and growing her company. Serena Ventures. Serena was honest. This transition came with a great deal of pain. This whole evolution thing has not been easy for me, she wrote. I don't particularly like to think about my legacy. I get asked about it a lot and I never know exactly what to say. But there is plenty to say about both Williams sisters and their legacy. Women's tennis is more competitive. There's more money to be made, and there are more black women and other players of color in the sport than ever before. That's because of Venus and Serena. So today we'll take a look at the mark the Williams sisters have left on tennis and how they've held the door open for future generations to walk through them. I'm Cecil Harris. This is all American. Venus and Serena. Episode Ten, Opening the Door. 


Jordan: All right. Well, Cecil, welcome to your final brain dump. 


Cecil Harris: Thank you. 


Jordan: You're welcome. 


Cecil Harris: In early 2021, I hopped on one last zoom call with my producers, Jordan and Albert, to unpack how the Williams sisters changed the technical side of the game. 


Jordan: What are the tangible examples we can directly attribute to what they did to change the sport of tennis? 


Cecil Harris: Well, it's a different game today. Venus and Serena have made tennis more athletic, faster, quicker, harder hitting than ever before. And they've basically sent a message to the rest of women's tennis. If you can't hang with us, get out of the way. If you can't hit with us, you've got no shot. But today's players understand, after watching Venus and Serena all, that's how you play the game. So we've seen Naomi Osaka, the 2018 U.S. Open champion beat Serena at her own game, if you will. And Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 U.S. Open champion, beat Serena at her own game. Today's players have come to realize that if you want to win championships now, you have to adjust to the way the Williams sisters change the game. 


Albert: Yeah, the other thing is we remember, like Venus, this record breaking serve that was that had won 29. But you look at the women's serves now and I mean they they can crash those serves as hard as like Federer's hitting those serves. 


Cecil Harris: Yeah. The earlier era the serve was just a means of starting a point when Chris Evert was world number one. She didn't have a big serve. The serve was just the way she would start the point and then beat you from the baseline. But Venus and Serena made the serve a weapon, and other players like Naomi Osaka have picked up on that, and they can win points with their serve. It's not just a way of starting the point. It's a way of dominating a point. 


Albert: You just kind of raise the standard, right? 


Albert: Yeah. If you can't keep up with them, step aside if. Serena and Venus have also made tennis more diverse. Many of the young black players in the sport have said that Venus and Serena have inspired them to play. This includes Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Madison Keys, and Frances Tiafoe, to name a few. 


Reporter: When Poker ran away and Madison Keys won their matches last night, American tennis declared victory. That's because they joined Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens to make the U.S. Open semifinals an all American affair. 


Cecil Harris: One of the best examples of the Williams sisters effect on the sport was the 2017 U.S. Open, when all four semifinalists, including Venus, were American. This did not happen in a major tournament and more than three decades. The U.S. Open proudly marketed the moment. . 


Cecil Harris: Not only would this be an all-American semifinal, but three of those four American women competing were also black Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams. That had not happened ever. Sloane Stephens, who was 24 at the time, faced Venus in the semis, which was strange for Sloane because she grew up idolizing Venus. But she defeated Venus and advanced to the final, where she would be playing a friend, Madison Keys, who Sloane calls Maddie. 


Reporter: Well, first, congratulations on making the final. 60 years ago, Althea Gibson won her first U.S. Open this year. Three black women are in the semifinals. Can you reflect on that? 


Sloane Stevens: That's I mean, I don't think there's any other word to describe it than amazing for me and Maddie, obviously. Venus kind of like we're following in her footsteps. She's been here. She's represented the game so well as an African-American woman, and Maddie and I are just here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has, has in the past. And I'm honored to be here. 


Cecil Harris: After Althea's retirement from tennis in 1958, the sport started to see the rise of some black tennis players, most notably Arthur Ashe, who followed in out his footsteps about a decade later. And women's tennis saw a number of breakout African-Americans from the late seventies into the nineties. Top players like Leslie Allen, Laura McNeil, Zina Garrison and Chanda Rubin. And when the Williams sisters started making a name for themselves, Althea lived to see it in her lifetime. Both Venus and Serena one major titles and reached number one in the world. The Williams sisters were the next black women to make it as far as Althea had in the sport that was not lost on them. Here's Venus after winning Wimbledon in 2000. 


Reporter: 42 years ago, Althea Gibson stood on this spot. What does that mean to you? 


Venus Williams: It means a lot. And I know she's somewhere watching this and whispering in the open. She was watching that. And I feel great. I feel that we've broken records and we're moving forward and we're doing something that someone's only done once. 


Cecil Harris: The succession from Althea to Venus to Serena is not limited to professional tennis. You don't have to be a pro for the Williams sisters to have changed your life. I'm glad they have courts here, the Harlem River courts at the time, because in many predominantly black neighborhoods, including when I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, tennis was not on my radar because I didn't see tennis in my neighborhood. I never saw anybody playing tennis. On the first weekend in February in 2022, my producers and I took a trip to Harlem. We wanted to pay a visit to the Frederick Johnson tennis courts, where Althea Gibson learned to play. These courts are nestled along the Harlem River, which flows south into New York City's East River. And just across the water, you can see Queens. The backdrop for America's major tennis tournament, the U.S. Open. While we were at the court, we met a young couple named Joshshanay Washington and Marcus Richard, who have just  finished playing tennis for the day. 


Joshshanay: Yeah. So we, like, look out the window. Yeah, we have. 


Marcus: Breakfast, lunch and like, oh, look, there's two courts. 


Cecil Harris: They have two daughters, and they live in a building that towers high above the courts. And this morning, they jumped at their chance to play because it was unseasonably warm. They say things only get busier in the summer months. 


Marcus: But if you're not early enough, all the courts are going to be full impact. So you've got to sit and wait and like we watch it out the window of court and then we want to know. 


Joshshanay: Exactly what we do. 


Cecil Harris: Johnny and Marcus both grew up in New York City, though neither of them played tennis. They became interested in the sport much later in life as adults. 


Cecil Harris: You're Black Do you play tennis and did the Williams sisters at all? Maybe watching them on TV, reading about them that they make you say, maybe I should try that sport? 


Joshshanay: Yes. Only because I was always impressed with the way that they heard. And just like they're they're like drive for the sport. Even when they lose, they lose gracefully. So it makes me feel like, you know, I don't always have to be perfect at it. So it was a learning curve for us trying to not hit the ball out all the time and just, you know, just trying to learn that. 


Cecil Harris: Now, tennis is a big part of Marcus and Joshshanay's everyday lives. 


Joshshanay: Yeah, it's it it's fun and it's like, fun for all ages. And I don't see us getting bored of it anytime soon. You? No. Right. And then it keeps us kind of like, give us something to do together. 


Marcus: It's like a little competitive edge. Yeah. Like, right now, I got to do the dishes due to the fact that I lost. I lost. I got to do dishes. 


Cecil Harris: My producers and I also spoke with someone who was influenced by the Williams sisters from an earlier age. 


Taifa: My name is Taifa Marlow and 16 years old is my senior year, at Andrew Jackson high school. I've been playing tennis for about six years now. 


Cecil Harris: Maybe we were introduced to Ty if A through a program run by MaliVai Washington. Mal is a former professional tennis player. In fact, he was the last African-American man to reach a Grand Slam final Wimbledon in 1996. Mal's tennis program is based in Jacksonville, Florida, and serves lots of kids Taifa's age. My producer Albert spoke with Tarver over Zoom. 


Albert: Who's your favorite tennis player? 


Taifa: It would definitely have to be. And it was kind of cliché with Venus or Serena. 


Cecil Harris: Taifa started playing tennis at ten years old. And even though Venus and Serena are in the twilight of their careers. From what Taifa has seen, she thinks their influence is only growing. 


Taifa: For example, honestly, like my first year playing tennis in high school, I only played to like, two players. But now it's my senior year and like every match I go to, every school has like more and more black tennis players and they're all like wearing a big hair. They're all wearing little scarves. Meg and I, despite while Ed is so awesome. 


Cecil Harris: Venus and Serena may be her favorite players now, but Tiefer says before her dad introduced her to the Williams sisters. She didn't quite get it. 


Taifa: I heard him mention being a Serena Williams playing tennis who really played since like was I started playing tennis. I'm like, these are some amazing women. It's crazy. It feels like a big hug to me because being able I as a as a black woman, you know, in in a sport dominated by mostly Caucasian males, for them to sit here and like really try and do what they're doing, it's like watching history unfold where we the fact that I get to watch this while I'm growing up, I feel like I'm a part of that history. 


Cecil Harris: As luck would have it, the Williams sisters continue to write their own history in a big way. Right as my production team and I were finishing up this episode. 


TV Announcer: Please welcome 14 time grand slam doubles champions. Venus and Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: At the 2022 US Open, the sister act was back. 


TV Announcer: What an incredible moment. One last time or perhaps a few more this tournament. But to see Serena and Venus once again walk on Arthur Ashe Stadium court. 


Cecil Harris: I was glued to my TV at home for the ESPN broadcast of this match. I never would have guessed when I first watched Venus and Serena play as teenagers that they'd still be competing when they were both in their forties. But here they were together on the court again, and I was happy to see them as a team. Venus and Serena are 14 and oh, and major doubles finals. They've also won gold together in three different Olympic Games. But as of this match, it had been several years since they played together, so I wasn't sure what to expect. 


TV Announcer: Do that two more times to get back to Deuce. 


Cecil Harris: Venus and Serena came up short in their match, but they certainly won the crowd over. They walked off to a standing ovation. 


TV Announcer: Four and a half years without playing a match with each other, even if you're sisters, that's A tough assignment. What a fun match. The string sets to the Czechs. Yes.


Cecil Harris: Even more fun at this point in the open. Serena was on a roll and singles. For all her greatness. This was a surprise. Serena came in unseeded and had competed very few times, and the year prior she wasn't expected to win much, if at all. Given her recent announcement in Vogue, Serena's open appearance was being framed more like a goodbye party. 


Oprah: What's there to say? The years went by in a blink. 98 feels like yesterday. You've given us so much. All we can do is. Thank you. 


Cecil Harris: Serena's opening match featured plenty of fanfare, including this tribute video from Oprah. But in true goat fashion, Serena wasn't interested in a ceremonial match. She'd come to compete. Well. Serena won her first round match in straight sets. She wasn't done yet. 


TV Announcer: No swansong this evening in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena will write another page to the last chapter of her professional career on Wednesday night in round two against Anett Kontaveit. 


Cecil Harris: Serena's second round match would be an even tougher climb. She was playing the number two ranked player in the world, but again, she defied expectations. 


TV Announcer: The Legend lives on. 


TV Announcer: Stan is in her own court interview after winning the match. Serena said she was enjoying herself because she loves a challenge. 


Serena Williams: I'm honestly, I'm just looking at it as a bonus. I don't have Anything to prove. I don't have anything to win. And. I have absolutely nothing to lose. 


Cecil Harris: The very next day was when Serena played doubles with Venus, who had lost her own first round singles match earlier in the week. But even after her defeat in doubles, Serena would have no time to rest. She was on the hook for a third consecutive day of tennis a Friday night. Third round match against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic. It was another gripping night of prime time tennis. 


TV Announcer: And Serena comes back. Another race, he goes, was that a that was the look she gave the umpire for sure. Seven aces now for Williams five In this set she is ramping up to serve...


Cecil Harris: Serena's signature serve and powerful forehands were on full display. It was the most watched tennis telecast in ESPN's history. 4.6 million people tuned in for what could be Serena's last professional match ever, because at the end of the three hour battle, Serena came up short. 


TV Announcer: It's over.  


Cecil Harris: In a mid-court interview immediately after the match, Serena was emotional as she reflected on her career. 


Serena Williams: It all started with my parents and they deserve everything, so I'm really grateful for them. Oh, my God. These are happy tears, I guess. I don't know. And I wouldn't be I wouldn't be Serena if it wasn't Venus. Thank you venus! She's the only reason Serena Williams ever existed. 


Cecil Harris: The week before her thrilling run at the 2022 U.S. Open, Serena was at the helm of a completely different arena. She appeared at the New York Stock Exchange where she rang the opening bell. She sported a one shoulder dress from her own clothing line as spy Serena for the occasion. But Serena was there to represent another one of her companies, Serena Ventures, a venture capital fund. As CEO, Serena has already led her firm to invest in 60 companies, most of them started by women and people of color. This was always part of the family plan, always part of the play. Serena and Venus would dominate tennis. Yes, but not limit themselves to their sport. And they've carried out that plan. Between them, the sisters have founded several companies ranging in scope, from apparel to interior design to early stage investing. On and off the court. They've already done more in their decades long careers than most superstar athletes ever accomplish. Venus has been circumspect about her future in tennis if she plans to retire soon. She isn't saying. But her father, Richard, told me years ago in an interview that his daughters would retire together. That way they could be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame the same year. Whenever Venus and Serena ultimately hang up their rackets for the last time, I'll be excited to see what they do next without the time, commitment and pressures of competition. Their most significant contributions may be yet to come. 


Cecil Harris: All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chen, Johanna Palmer, Camille Stanley and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Gianna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchey and Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Kelvin. See bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke and Davis. Right, Tremain. I'm your host, Cecil Harris.