Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens And The Uneven Future of American Tennis

Credit: Atlanta Black Star
Credit: Atlanta Black Star

On Sunday, after handily beating Sloane Stephens in the fourth round of the US Open, Serena Williams, when asked to comment on Stephens’ play, said to the audience, “How excited are you for the future of American tennis?”

With this single, canny question, Serena both made it clear that she is the now of American tennis and that Stephens has great potential. It’s hard to argue against either assertion. Serena, at the ripe old age of 31 and 18 years into her professional career, is the number one female tennis player in the world and the reigning French, US Open, and Olympic singles champion. Stephens, 20, is in her fourth year of the professional circuit and is currently ranked 16 in the world (the second highest ranking for a US female tennis player behind Serena). Her best showing at a grand slam was this year’s Australian Open where she made the semifinals after beating Serena in the quarters. Stephens made it to the fourth round of the French and US Open this year, as well as the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Stephens has potential in spades.

And Stephens isn’t the only one. This year’s US Open had 19 US women players in the draw. Of the 19 US women who made the draw, 10 made it into the second round and 7 of them are 23 or younger. Victoria Duval, the youngest of the 10 at age 17, had the biggest first-round win when she beat former US Open champion and 11 seed, Sam Stosur in three sets. Christina McHale, 21, lost in the third round as did Jamie Hampton, a 23-year-old who was seeded 23 in the tournament (it was her first time being seeded at a grand slam and she lost in the third round to Sloane Stephens). Alison Riske, a 23-year-old wild card entry made it all the way to the fourth round.

Serena is now the lone US woman left in the singles tournament. In fact, she’s the only US singles player left in either the men’s or women’s draw. When she said, “the future of American tennis,” it’s easy to extrapolate that she really meant, “the future of American women’s tennis.” Of the 15 US men in the singles draw, none made it into the fourth round. Tim Smyczek, currently ranked 105 in the world, was the final US man and he lost in a five-set match to Spain’s Marcel Granollers this weekend. The best US men’s tennis player — John Isner, ranked 17, seeded 13 — also lost in the third round. Jack Sock, currently ranked 86th in the world, was the only other US man to make it that deep into the tournament. Earlier this summer, Isner fell out of the top 20 and for the first time in the four decades that rankings have been compiled, no US man was in the top 20. It’s clear that US men’s tennis is in crisis.

What does this all mean?

First, even as women’s tennis in the US has potential, we should worry a bit. Serena Williams is easily the most famous female athlete in this country and certainly the most famous US tennis player. While there has been much discussion about her and sister Venus Williams’ influence on young women and girls of color when it comes to the sport of tennis, their impact over the last two decades on all young women and girls in this country striving to participate in any sport has probably been immeasurable. When they both decide to retire, especially Serena, what will that mean for women’s sports more generally in the US, not just in tennis? It’s exciting to see the potential of the women following in their footsteps on the tennis court but the gap between Serena and Sloane is still a large one.


Second, in a sport that has a long history of men’s champions from the US, how does tennis hold up in this country if our best contenders are barely holding on to a top-20 ranking? Tom Perotta had a scathing piece about the future of US tennis, especially for the men but also for the women, last week. In the best of lights, it’s hard to see good things over the next five to ten years for US men’s tennis.

Third, it’s important to talk about diversity in this sport when we think about its future. As Travis Waldron has written about here at Think Progress, people have a deep desire to see Stephens and Williams have a close relationship even though neither one has ever said as much. And as Waldron argues, that is grounded in the fact that Serena is the face of diversity, especially in the US, in an otherwise very white sport. Stephens, as another black woman, the story goes, must have to rely on Serena when carving her path. “The expectation that Williams should be a mentor to Stephens, and that Stephens needed Williams to mentor her, is unfair to both of them,” Waldron writes. He’s right.

And while we’ve been so focused on the Serena/Sloane (non-)relationship, little has been said about the lack of diversity on the men’s side, something that got worse this weekend when veteran player James Blake retired. Between Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Federer, and Serena, we are in an era of golden tennis. What happens when Serena retires? I’m not sure that I’m ready to find out quite yet.