For many women, 2017 has paralleled the beginning scenes of The Handmaiden’s Tale. From rampant sexual harassment among Silicon Valley tech workers, to the government’s decision to block the collection of equal pay data to the attacks on reproductive rights at the state level – being a black woman in this day and age can feel bleak. However, within women’s tennis black women continue to blaze trails as change agents during these much needed times. From Serena Williams taking time away from her career to have a baby, to equal pay among male and female athletes to the diversity and sisterhood displayed at the U.S. Open Final between Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens – the sport and its star athletes continue to be on the cutting edge socially and politically.
I’ll start by admitting that I am not a sports fan. In fact, I watched the semi-final U.S. Open match between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens against my will. You see, we have one television in the house and my husband refused to change the channel from the match. However, my annoyance soon turned to intrigue as Venus Williams and another black women who is not Serena Williams, darted across the screen displaying the grace, speed and power of athletic goddesses. After a harrowing battle, the recently 900th ranked Sloane Stephens pushed the seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams out of the competition.
By Saturday, I was looking forward to the Finals match between Stephens and Madison Keys (who beat out CoCo Vandweghe in the semi-finals). The match was fast-paced and physical, and I loved that once again there were two women of color on the court (Keys father is African-American although she doesn’t identify with a specific ethnicity). It was also emotional, with Keys fighting back tears as she struggled to keep up with the intense game of her competitor and friend. In the end Stephens prevailed, becoming the newest Women’s Grand Slam Champion and possibly tennis’ newest It Girl.
It was amazing watching such strong and athletic women of color dominate in the sports arena. However, more than the competition itself what struck me is how progressive the sport is and what an important platform it serves to demonstrate what equality can look like. In some ways, tennis gets a bad rap for being a sport that skews conservative, privileged and white. (In fact, after her historic win, Sloane Stephens commented on how her first tennis coach commented that she’d be lucky if she was able to play tennis at the Division II level.) However, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways that women’s tennis has continued to break barriers.
Perhaps the battle for equality in women’s tennis began in 1973, with the nationally televised match between No. 2 ranked female player Billie Jean King and former men’s Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” (A biopic about the match featuring Emma Stone will debut in theaters September 22). Or maybe it began in 1950 when Althea Gibson broke the color barrier to become the first African American to play at what is now the U.S. Open. None the less, this year’s Women’s U.S. Open seemed to be the culmination of the years and years of combined efforts to provide female players with the same opportunity as men and to provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds to participate.
Even the absence of Serena Williams seemed to be a sign of what’s going well in the sport. After all, in most industries women obsess about when they can pause their career to start a family, and for how long, and what type of professional opportunities they will have when they re-enter the work force after having a baby. At the top ranks of women’s tennis – that seems to be less of a concern. Likely, William’s comfort in starting her family at the height of her career is because of the fortunes and opportunities that a sport as progressive as women’s tennis has afforded her.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, black women still only make 63 cents to every dollar that non-Hispanic white men make. However, within women’s tennis Billie Jean King as well as Serena and Venus Williams have long been advocates of pay equality for players. Interestingly, the U.S. Open was the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money in 1973. This year, both winners of the U.S. Open, Sloane Stephens and Rafael Nadal received $3.7 million, the largest purse to date. In fact, in reaction to her prize winnings Stephens reacted saying “That’s a lot of money – oh my god!” With competitor and friend Madison Keys saying about the check, “I’ll hold it for you!”
However, the best part of the competition was the sisterhood. In fact, after their match Keys and Stephens embraced each other. It was a hug that seemed to last forever. And it was so heart warming to see two talented, powerful (and very rich) young, women doing exactly as they pleased, which was to defy convention and uplift each other on a very public stage. Now that’s girl power.