This is prime-time material, good enough to entice any sports fan to tune into the U.S. Open women’s semifinals to witness the renaissance of American tennis. I’ll be watching, too, but not for that reason.
I’m watching because the players are black women, and I like watching black women do cool stuff on my TV.
I like seeing Venus, her hair natural, like mine, thick and bundled under her brightly colored visor.
And Sloane, her forearms defined, unfortunately way more chiseled than mine, and covered by an endless canvas of beautiful mocha.
I understand how this sounds, describing the physical appearance of women before mentioning their stellar achievements, like Venus’s seven Grand Slam titles or Sloane’s three semifinal appearances this summer after returning to the game from an 11-month injury hiatus. Also, I can already hear the All Tennis Players Matter crowd complaining that I shouldn’t be so caught up on race.
But I unabashedly root for representation and role models, knowing there are many girls with Venus’s hair type and Sloane’s dark complexion who don’t always see positive images of themselves on television. But on Thursday, they will.
Let’s be clear: This semifinal match between Venus and Sloane won’t magically end racism. Two sistas inside Arthur Ashe Stadium can’t undo years of damage done by ratchet reality TV shows that have portrayed black women as loud, quarreling and materialistic. However, this unicorn moment — with another black American, Madison Keys, joining this final four — will matter. Not just to me, but also to the millions who look like me, think like me, move in this world like me.
I’m a product of the in between — old enough to remember seeing only a few black Cabbage Patch dolls on the shelves, yet entrenched enough into today’s culture where suburbanites and sistas alike agree: Beyoncé is boss and Idris Elba is bae. Though this progression of scattered mainstream acceptance is a great step, I’d still like to see more. Because before a kid can visualize herself doing dope stuff, she first has to see it done. See how it’s even possible. So watching the Williams sisters in action or Sloane ripping winners down the baseline isn’t just about great tennis. It’s about being inspired and seeing someone like you succeed.
Certainly there must have been times when Venus and her sister Serena wanted to be simply known as tremendous tennis players and not “black tennis players.” And fair or not, people of color who may have some influence in the cultural conversation are often viewed as the avatar for their entire group. This can be arduous and misleading — no one person can represent a complex and diverse people — and sometimes even the ones pushed to be spokeswomen push back. For someone like Keys — she’s bi-racial, calls Taylor Swift her favorite musician and lists “The Notebook” as her favorite movie and will politely check you that she doesn’t want to be defined as black — the role doesn’t fit.
That’s fine, but I would hope that other people with a precious platform, who are okay with the responsibility, understand their significance and represent accordingly.
And the sport of tennis, for so long not a bastion of blackness, offers several role models.
Twenty years ago, Venus made her U.S. Open debut, the same year the new center court was named after Arthur Ashe, the first and only African American man to win this tournament as well as Wimbledon. That’s significant.
Katrina Adams, a black woman, became the first person elected two times in a row as U.S. Tennis Association president and CEO. That’s motivating.
So, yes, I’m a casual tennis fan who only pays attention to the championships, but I’ll be watching and rooting and obsessing over Thursday’s match. It’ll be the best thing on television.