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Best Ever: Top performances by African-American players headline US Open history

February 9, 2011 04:55 PM
Arthur Ashe was the first African-American Grand Slam champion of the Open Era.
Serena Williams reached the summit of the tennis world in 1999 by winning the US Open...
...but older sister Venus held the winner's trophy two years later, capping a near-perfect run in 2001.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
 
Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.... If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.
-- Alice Marble

When Althea Gibson received an invitation to play at the 1950 U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills, the landmark change came not at the behest of a family member or friend, nor Gibson herself. As the marquee women's player of the American Tennis Association (ATA) – a segregated circuit designed for African-Americans – even Gibson could not be blamed for a lack of faith in the social order. 

With racial segregation still strong in what would be its final full decade, such slights towards black athletes – no matter how accomplished a resume (four straight ATA national titles, second place at the 1950 National Indoor Championships) – went uncorrected.

Majority over minority, rarely without fail.

Rather, Gibson's bleak predicament found support in the form a former champion – a white woman long retired, 15 years her senior – standing up as an overwhelming force in the court of public opinion.

Four-time U.S. national champion Alice Marble was provoked by the then-USLTA and a lack of progressive action taken to back their principle: To host an annual tournament featuring the very best amateur players in the world. In an impassioned editorial to American Lawn Tennis Magazine in July 1950, Marble declared that if Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete at the National Championship, "then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed."

Before the summer was out, the 23-year-old Gibson became the first African-American player, man or woman, to compete in a Grand Slam tournament.

As part of USTA.com's celebration of Black History Month, we take a look back through 60 years of African-American achievement at the US Open and present the most memorable moments: The wins (and even losses) and their symbolic place in Open history.

1958: Althea Gibson d. Darlene Hard, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, to win the U.S. National Championship

Any list begins with Gibson, who, as aforementioned, was the first black player to play at the US Open and also the first to win the tournament in 1957, defeating fellow American Louise Brough Clapp in the women's singles final. As the 1958 National Championships moved closer, the 31-year-old Gibson began to talk retirement after proving all she perceived she could as an amateur – in the years preceding the Open Era, there was no prize money save for a player's expense allowance, and no endorsement deals. To begin earning prize money, tennis players had to give up their amateur status. Eight years after making history at Forest Hills, Gibson decided that 1958 would be, for better or worse, her finale.

Although Gibson and Brazil's Maria Bueno would drop the women's doubles final to the American duo of Darlene Hard and Jeanne Arth, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, Gibson extracted revenge on Hard a day later with a three-set victory and a fifth and final Grand Slam title. For the blossoming 22-year-old Hard, it was a tough defeat from which she learned from the best (as the top-ranked U.S. player from 1960-63, Hard won U.S. National Championships in 1960 and 1961). For Gibson, it was a last validation and a goal fulfilled to go out a winner before setting her sights on professional endeavors.

As there was no professional tennis tour for women until 1970, Gibson was limited to playing in a series of exhibitions and barnstorming tours in the early '60s. As a featured attraction with the Harlem Globetrotters, she earned a reported $100,000 for a year's worth of matches.

For an African-American woman born in segregated South Carolina and raised poor in Harlem, the money and the accolades were unprecedented; yet Gibson always yearned for outlets in which she could prove herself. In 1964, Gibson broke another barrier by becoming the first black woman to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, where she played as a professional until 1978.

Her contributions to the game of tennis and to African-American culture, however, remain the lasting story of Althea Gibson's success. Without her resolve in an era of hostility, the sport of tennis may have never seen an age where a black woman would be ranked No. 1 in the world for one day, let alone 49 straight weeks, as Serena Williams did from 2009-10.

1968: Arthur Ashe d. Tom Okker, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, to win the first-ever US Open Men's Singles Championship

Beginning with the French Open in 1968, the idea of crowning undisputed champions in an "Open Era" held massive allure. Professionals and amateurs onward would be united in competition at the Grand Slams, heightening the spectacle of tennis's traditional premier events. For the first-ever US Open later that summer, the stage was set for the greatest tennis tournament the crowds at Forest Hills had ever seen.

For the first time in six years, Rod Laver – long considered the finest tennis player of his, or any, age – was back in the fray to compete for America's top title. After sweeping all four Grand Slam tournaments in his final year as an amateur (1962), Laver looked poised to pick up where he left off, especially after dropping No. 2 seed and fellow countryman Tony Roche in straight sets to take the '68 Wimbledon title.

No. 3 Ken Rosewall, who claimed Roland Garros and the first true "open" Grand Slam, remained in his prime and in the midst of a 25-year run when he ranked among the top-20 players in the world, amateur or professional, every year from 1952 through 1977. Rounding things out was fourth-seeded John Newcombe, the only amateur in the group and defending champion at Forest Hills, winning the 1967 tournament. 

Twenty-five-year-old Ashe represented the best hope to upset the Aussie threat as the Open's No. 5 seed – at least, reflected by ranking – but he had a reputation of coming up small against older and stronger opponents in his U.S. National Championships appearances. In 1959, Ashe lost his debut match in Queens to Laver in straight sets at the age of 16. He entered the tournament each successive year through 1966, reaching the semifinals just once (1965) and losing to Roche (fourth round, 1964) and Newcombe (third round, 1966) in years when he was a favorite to win.

Ashe's perceived failures in the years leading up to 1968 – ultimately overstated, as he had won three ATA national titles as a teen against world-class adult athletes – should have marked the maturation process of a developing player but instead became an indictment of his race: Black men couldn't compete with the best in the world on the court. Burdened by social upheaval and lack of precedent, Arthur Ashe was forced to bear the stinging criticism alone. A week before his death due to complications from AIDS in 1993, Ashe would tell reporters that the discrimination he faced in his youth was the toughest and most draining battle of his life: "Living with AIDS is not the greatest burden I've had in my life. Being black is. AIDS killed my body, but racism kills the soul."

But in 1968, it clicked for Ashe, as one of the greatest individual years by an American tennis champion – black or white – played out. After winning the inaugural United States Amateur Championships earlier in the year, Ashe arrived in Forest Hills and sailed into the quarterfinals without dropping a set. From there, the remaining matches tested Ashe's mettle and skill like no tournament had before.

Against South African Cliff Drysdale, he defeated a player representing a country whose ideology – apartheid – Ashe publicly decried because of the country's police state and its refusal to grant him visa status.

After Drysdale came Davis Cup teammate and lifelong rival Clark Graebner, whom he bested in four sets to reach his first major final in the United States. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee wrote "Levels of the Game" a year later based upon the match and its historical significance. The two would later go on to lead the U.S. to a 1968 Davis Cup victory in Puerto Rico, marking Ashe as the only player to win all three titles (US Amateur, US Open and Davis Cup) in the same calendar year.

For Ashe's finale, it took five grueling sets to dispatch No. 8 Tom Okker of the Netherlands, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, to seize the elusive American Slam.

With the victory, Ashe became:
  • The first American champion of the Open Era
  • The first and only amateur to ever win a US Open
  • The first African-American man to win a Grand Slam
As monument to Ashe's historic accomplishment, each US Open final is contested to this day inside a stadium bearing his name that was constructed in 1997.

1999: Serena Williams d. Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6, to win the 1999 US Open

"Little Sister, Big Hit" was the stylish caption adorning Serena Williams's first Sports Illustrated cover, and indeed she served, shot and scorched her way into the tennis spotlight in the summer of 1999.

Two weeks shy of her 18th birthday, Williams brought home her very first Grand Slam singles title  to the delight of a patriotic American audience by upending No. 1 Martina Hingis. The run planted Williams firmly among the elites of the sport, where she has more or less remained in the dozen years since. The rise of Serena and the aftershock stood out particularly because most fans and experts expected that older sister Venus, ranked No. 3, was destined to be the first African-American woman to win it all in Flushing Meadows.

Prior to 1999, Venus had a US Open final (1997) and semifinal appearance (1998) to her credit while reaching at least the quarterfinals in seven of her previous eight majors, whereas the neophyte Serena made her Open debut only a year before, losing in the third round. The landmark victories in Serena's brief career to that point had came in doubles competition. Tremendously talented as she was, the idea that Serena was ready to topple prime players, such as Hingis, Venus and Lindsay Davenport, meant facing longer odds and little precedent – only Maureen Connolly Brinker (1951), Tracy Austin (1979), Monica Seles (1991) and Hingis (1997) had turned the under-18 feat in over a century of competition in Queens.
 
As a career-high No. 7 seed, Serena stormed through the first two rounds of the '99 Open over Kimberly Po and qualifier Jelena Kostanic before a third-round tussle with a fellow up-and-comer in 16-year-old Belgian Kim Clijsters. After losing the first set, Williams fought back, taking the second set and breaking Clijsters as she served for the match in the third. The 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory was the biggest gut check of Williams' career to that point and served – in a different meaning of the word – as the initial chapter to one of the game's greatest rivalries in the decade to come. In the round of 16, Williams once again lost the first set but came back to defeat Spain's Conchita Martinez.

The aforementioned No. 4 Seles awaited Williams in the quarterfinals, where a passing of the torch unfolded inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The standard of precocious performance – a record eight Grand Slam singles titles as a teenager – Seles' loss to Williams was both cyclic and symbolic; advancing deep into the second week for the first time ever, Williams appeared poised to make history with strong serves and an overpowering forehand. The clamor grew, and attention shifted, as Venus fell to Hingis in the semis, only to be upstaged by little sister Serena besting defending Open champ Davenport, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

A final featuring Hingis and Williams presented opposite play styles pitted against one another: Finesse vs. power, the volleyer vs. the baseliner. After four straight three-set thrillers, the final was an emphatic straight-sets coronation of the new guard – Serena Williams, before anyone ever expected, stood atop the tennis world and reigned as the first female African-American champion of the Open Era. Coupled with a women's doubles title with Venus – their first as a team at the US Open – the future had arrived with braids, beads and big smiles.

2001: Venus Williams d. Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4, to win consecutive US Open crowns

If Serena drew up the blueprint for a Williams US Open run in 1999, her sister perfected the plan two years later.

Winning one Grand Slam is a career-defining accomplishment, especially when it’s the US Open. To do so two years in a row takes transcendent talent. You can count on your fingers and find how many women have done it in the Open Era (literally, just eight in almost 43 years of major competition, two being the Williams sisters). Variables, such as chance, hunger and injury, play into why so few repeats occur, but even when they do, it's even more extraordinary when the defending champion returns and plays better the next year.

Enter the anomalous Venus, who in 2001 turned in her finest Queens appearance, capping off a turbulent, yet ultimately tremendous, year in between titles.

After the 2000 Open win and winning a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics, Venus took three months off due to complications from anemia, finishing the year ranked No. 3 in the world. When she returned at the 2001 Australian Open and reached the semifinals, a shot at No. 1 seemed within reach until a knee ailment derailed her.

When healthy, the up-and-down progression of her 2001 campaign continued. Williams suffered an unexpected loss in the first round of the French Open, marking only the second such occurrence in her Grand Slam singles career. Questions about her health were quelled when she won Wimbledon for a second straight year, followed by first-place finishes at US Open tune-up tournaments in San Diego and New Haven.

Despite being the hottest player on tour and the event's defending champion, Williams surprisingly entered the 2001 Open seeded lower than the previous year – from No. 3 to No. 4, behind Hingis, Capriati and Davenport.

In the seven victories racked up by Venus en route to capturing her fourth Grand Slam tournament title inside of 14 months, the elder Williams did not drop a set – an amazing accomplishment in and of itself, before realizing that she didn't allow any opponent to win more than four games within a set. In the Open Era, it is a feat equaled only by Martina Navrátilová in 1983. (Chris Evert is technically allowed in the group, though her 1976 run consisted of six matches, not seven.) Along the way, Venus eliminated five seeded opponents – including Capriati – and struck the first blow in her rivalry with sister Serena, as this was the first time the two met as opponents in a Grand Slam tournament final.

2005: Andre Agassi d. James Blake, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6), in the quarterfinals of the US Open

At the dawn of the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry (for the first time at a Grand Slam, seeded No. 1 and No. 2, respectively) and the twilight of an American tennis icon (Andre Agassi, in his last Grand Slam final appearance), no player had more vocal supporters at the 2005 US Open than a 25-year-old wild card, fresh from the Challenger circuit.

James Blake's odyssey of self-fulfillment and the ultimate accrual of professional respect endures onward and is arguably the greatest run at an Open by an African-American man since Ashe's victory almost 40 years prior.

Until 2004, Blake had been a steadily rising talent for five years running, marked by his appointment to the U.S. Davis Cup team at the age of 21 – only the third African-American (Ashe and MaliVai Washington had been the others) player elected in the team's history. Blake leapt to No. 22 in the world rankings by 2002, developing a reputation as one of the better hard-court players of his age, thanks in large part to a booming forehand and great foot speed.

It was his feet, however, that failed him one spring afternoon and nearly cost him his career.

While practicing with Robby Ginepri in Rome, Blake suffered a fractured vertebrae in his neck in a freak incident after slipping on the clay surface and colliding with a net post. As a side effect of the accident and the stresses placed upon his upper body, he was diagnosed with shingles one week later. The viral disorder paralyzed the left side of Blake's face and severely blurred his vision.

Just three months into convalescence, an infinitely more terrible blow befell Blake – his father, Thomas Blake Sr., lost a long-standing bout with stomach cancer. In the wake of the passing of his first tennis mentor and best friend, Blake described revival through his closest comrades – friends from his youth in New York City – at the nadir of his career.

Despite a strong quarterfinal showing in doubles at the Australian Open, Blake still appeared rusty in solo matches and had dropped to No. 210 in the world by April 2005. What followed was one last sabbatical from top competition, playing Challenger circuit events in both Mississippi and the original site of the US Open, Forest Hills. Feeling the need to get more matches under his belt, Blake would win both events in May and come back to the ATP Tour level in the summer with strong appearances at Olympus US Open Series tournaments in Washington D.C. and Cincinnati.

On the eve of his first Open since 2003, Blake further cemented claims of a career comeback by winning the former Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven, notching his second career ATP title in the process. In the span of four months, Blake had raised his world ranking 161 spots to No. 49 and would enter Flushing Meadows as a wild-card entrant in the main draw.

Right out of the gate stood a decorated opponent in 1997 Open finalist Greg Rusedski, though with the momentum of the summer still going strong, Blake proved up to the challenge of the big Brit and also second-round victim Igor Andreev, both in straight sets. The third-round appearance would be Blake's best progress at a US Open since almost shocking top-seed Lleyton Hewitt in 2002, but he wouldn't stop there – a 19-year-old Nadal succumbed to the power game of Blake, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, sending figurative tremors throughout the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center. The upstart American would defeat another Spaniard, No. 19 Tommy Robredo, in four sets to reach his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal against a familiar face.

Andre Agassi had served as an idol to Blake as a teenager, when tennis was a welcome escape from 18-hour days in a full back brace due to scoliosis. Blake won his first-ever ATP title in 2002 after beating Agassi in the semifinals, and an impressed Andre described the younger countryman as a "fighter jet, burning fuel fast and furious," admitting to being a big fan of his go-for-broke style of play. The two met for the first time at a US Open and needed two hours and 51 minutes to decide a winner. Taking the first two sets from the 35-year-old legend, Blake once again had a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd up and cheering, many in disbelief that they were witnessing the end of Agassi, possibly for good.

Then, appropriately and cruelly, the clock struck midnight, and Agassi awoke. Pushing Blake to make return after return, the veteran took advantage of Blake's aggressive style and evened things at two sets apiece. As one final act of recovery, Blake broke Agassi in the fifth and had a chance to serve out the match at 5-4; yet Agassi refused to give in, forcing a tiebreak and eventually capitalizing on a second match point.

Both American players, and the audience, were drained, as the two met for a handshake at the net at nearly 1:30 in the morning. Interviews with Time magazine and "60 Minutes" – for the loser – would have to wait until after a night's sleep.
 

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