For the past two weeks, in an effort to avoid ugliness of politics, the horrors of Harvey and the impending catastrophe called Irma, I’ve been watching a lot of tennis.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve been preoccupied – excusably so – be aware that this is the final weekend of the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows in New York.
There are always a host of great stories during the two-week tournament, but the best one this year has been written by 40-year-old Venus Williams.
It’s been 20 years since Venus reached the finals of the U.S. Open for the first time before losing to Martina Hingis. And a lot has changed since then regarding African-Americans in tennis.
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In 1997, a 17-year-old Venus Williams was brought to tears because of the overt racism shown toward her by some players, not to mention tennis fans.
A recent Sports Illustrated story said “the ugliness that consumed the 1997 U.S. Open seemed unstoppable,” with frequent sniping about this black girl’s “demeanor” and “unfriendliness.”
When one opponent, Irina Spirlea of Romania, collided with her on a changeover, her father retaliated by calling Spirlea a “big, ugly, tall, white turkey” and complained about the racism in professional tennis. Her father, Richard, said he and Venus both heard the n-word used by players.
Flash forward to 2017 and check out how times have changed.
Over the years, the classy Venus turned the taunts into respect and this year became the sentimental favorite to win the U.S. Open; even as she lost her semifinal match Thursday, her opponent applauded her exit from the court.
If you didn’t think the entire tennis world was behind her, you’ve been spending too much time on hurricanes.
Here’s what she said to the crowd after winning a three-set match to reach the semifinals: “I have to say I felt every single one of you guys behind me – all 23,000 of you. It feels amazing. I didn’t want to let you guys down.”
Venus’ struggles and redemption remind me of those of a player closer to my generation, the late Arthur Ashe.
Ashe was a ground-breaker for African-American tennis players and in doing so became a civil rights icon.
In 1968, he became the first African-American to win the U.S. Open, but the following year he was denied a visa to play in the South African Open because of comments he made about Apartheid. The snub turned him into a fierce opponent of Apartheid and he is credited with helping to end the policy.
In 1975, Ashe found himself on the receiving end of racist taunts by Ilie Nastase in a Masters Tournament in Sweden. He walked off the court, saying he would take a disqualification before more racial insults.
“I’ve had enough,” he said. “I’m at the point where I’m afraid I’ll lose control. I’d rather lose that than my self-respect.”
Masters officials, shocked and embarrassed by Nastase’s outbursts, decided he should be the one disqualified, not Ashe – another major civil rights victory.
So where are we today? The main venue in Flushing Meadows is the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The president of the U.S. Tennis Association, Katrina Adams, is an African-American.
Oh, by the way, Venus Williams’ sister, Serena, is the arguably the best tennis player in the world.
And on Saturday Sloane Stephens, another African-American, will be playing for the U.S. Open championship.
Good luck, Sloane.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.