Serena Williams, and to a lesser degree her sister Venus, saved American tennis.
It sounds egocentric to pull out the fact that the Williams sisters are American right after Serena captured a historic 23rd grand slam title to reaffirm her status as the greatest female athlete of all-time, but for a nation that has little hope in tennis for the immediate future, appreciating the present is all the more necessary.
The sport’s future prospects in general aren’t the most exciting, with a dearth of stars and rivalries left to follow some of the most memorable names. But without Venus and especially Serena continuing to captivate, America’s interest in tennis would have decidedly waned by now.
No disrespect to the likes of Coco Vandeweghe, Sloane Stephens, Steve Johnson, John Isner, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey, but none of them have either the star-power or potential to be a multi-grand slam winner worth the full attention of casual American fans.
Madison Keys, who became the first American woman to debut in the top-10 since Serena, appears to be the only one capable of taking up the torch at the moment, but for all her talent, the 21-year-old still has a long way to go to become a household name.
Winning, at least to the benchmark Serena has set, isn’t a prerequisite though. No one expects another American to come along and achieve the same level of success, winning major after major and being the top player in the world.
You can still be a star and capture America’s attention without the glossy resume. Look no further than Andy Roddick for proof, with the big server, despite winning a single grand slam [and claiming the world no1 ranking] in his underachieving career, managing to draw eyes and interest.
Roddick followed legends Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and took advantage of a gap that had no other American men in contention. On the women’s side, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati were having success during the same time, but Roddick’s potential to be bigger than what he ended up being made him compelling.
Serena, however, became a gravitational force. If not for her, there would be no bridge carrying along American hopes until the next one emerges. Her longevity hasn’t just been essential to re-writing the record books, but in keeping tennis alive for a country that would otherwise care less.
And the way she’s done it has been just as significant. Yes, it matters that she’s a strong, African American woman who takes no prisoners and isn’t afraid to show her confidence. Her charisma and style, in both her play and attire on the court, show personality that runs counter to the clean-cut, white tennis stereotype.
It’s undoubtedly inspired younger players, even if it won’t translate to her eventual successor.
There will come a time when America won’t have the Williamses as a lens to follow tennis through, but until that day comes, there shouldn’t be a second in which we take them for granted.
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