Together, they took home seven WTA doubles titles and reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1988.
“She was like my sister,” said Adams, who was the first African American president and chairman of the U.S. Tennis Association. “That was huge for me, because I wasn’t out here trying to figure it out by myself.”
Today’s up-and-coming Black tennis players have far more options for Black mentors and many more examples of Black players competing in the upper echelons than Adams ever did.
The women’s singles draw at this year’s U.S. Open included 13 Black women, 12 of whom play for the United States and Naomi Osaka, who was born in Japan. Osaka, who has a Haitian father and Japanese mother, was raised primarily in the United States. In the men’s draw, Maryland native Frances Tiafoe and Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime spearheaded a much smaller but no less impactful contingent: Both advanced to the fourth round for the first time.
“We’ve never been close to this,” said Martin Blackman, who oversees the USTA’s player development arm. “My guess is that the most African American women we’ve ever had in the draw is probably around six or seven, but with that I’m not even sure.”
Blackman isn’t far off: In 2015, six Black women competed in the U.S. Open singles draw. In 2010, when Serena Williams missed the tournament because of injury, there was just her sister Venus.
It is easy to pinpoint the reason for the steep increase in Black players at the sport’s top levels. Blackman, who became interested in tennis as a child in Barbados when Arthur Ashe upset Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975, calls it the Serena and Venus effect. Their influence comes not only from their two-decade stay in the sport’s ruling class but also their journey to the top.
They were reared in Compton, Calif., and their father, Richard, was their tutor on the court, not a private instructor. The pair eschewed junior tennis and the lower-level ITF tour, where prize money doesn’t make up for extensive, expensive travel.
“They’ve just changed the paradigm,” Blackman said in a phone interview this week. “It showed a lot of families — a lot of African American families — that if your kids have the desire and the ability, you can make it happen. That’s what you’re seeing now.”
For the Black players walking around Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this fortnight, that groundswell translates to accessible mentorship — a swath of players available to talk through navigating an overwhelmingly White sport.
It’s a role Tiafoe takes seriously. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, the 22-year-old began playing tennis because his father worked at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center. He counts the Williams sisters as important mentors in his career and makes it a priority to check in with a pair of Washington natives who also came through JTCC — 18-year-old Hailey Baptiste and 16-year-old Robin Montgomery, two of the youngest entrants in the U.S. Open women’s field this year.
“I’m not going to let those guys fail,” Tiafoe, ranked No. 82, said this week. “I was texting [Robin] when I was on the bus yesterday for like 45 minutes, kind of asking her what she thought about her experience, what I thought, what she can do better. … Just knowing that somebody is always going to be up for you, someone damn near blood, is huge. You build confidence from that. And I’m not sitting there judging them; they’re going to get real info. I’m not going to tell them what they want to hear.”
Adams said an emotional support system like the one she needed in the 1980s and ’90s is still crucial for players today.
“It’s even more important with the Black Lives Matter movement and so much uncertainty and tension around,” Adams said. “When [Black players] are traveling in America, they have to continue to be vigilant and careful in their surroundings and make sure they have that support system for them. It’s not getting any easier, especially with cyber bullying.”
That the surge of Black players at this year’s U.S. Open coincides with widespread protests of police brutality and an intensified wave of athlete activism isn’t lost on those competing in New York. The event isn’t just a display of the Williams sisters’ influence; it is a demonstration of Black players’ power in the sport.
Osaka, who this year inherited the distinction of being the world’s highest-paid female athlete from Serena Williams, flexed her muscle last month in announcing she would sit out her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open in solidarity with NBA players refusing to play in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis. The entire tournament paused for a day instead, a gob-smacking move for a sport historically lagging on social justice and racial issues.
During the U.S. Open, Osaka is one of many players wearing her message on her sleeve.
“Black Lives Matter” shirts have popped up on players at the U.S. Open, though they are few and far between. Tiafoe wore a shirt with “Arthur 1968” in a news conference this week, a nod to Ashe and his history-making win in New York. Osaka wears a face mask with the name of a different victim of violence for her on-court interview on ESPN after every match.
“I feel like the biggest thing I can gain off of international viewers watching is for them to Google the name, research the story, find out exactly what’s going on,” Osaka said when a Japanese reporter asked her about her masks. “Racism isn’t just an American thing.”
Should Osaka, the No. 4 seed and a favorite to win the tournament, face No. 3 seed Serena Williams in Saturday’s final, it would be the third meeting of Black players in the women’s final in the past four years. Williams and Osaka met in 2018, and Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys played for the title in 2017.
That’s the type of visibility Blackman knows will trickle down.
“When we look back at this year and this Open, when we connect the dots between African American representation and the voice of the players in speaking to social justice, I think we’re going to look back at this year as an inflection point for our sport,” Blackman said, “for what the stars and future stars in tennis are able to accomplish.”