On September 08, 2001 Venus Williams won the women’s singles championship of the US Open Tennis Tournament in New York City for the second straight year (and for the last time) by defeating her younger sister Serena. It was the first Grand Slam final between sisters in 117 years – the media hype surrounding the match was intense, but the match ended in 69 minutes with a 6-2, 6-4 older sister win. I remember watching the Williams Sisters in the final but can’t remember which one I rooted for, probably the elder Venus. At the time I couldn’t anticipate the incredible impact these two women would have on their sport for the next two decades – both on and off the court – but their names are now synonymous with tennis greatness around the world.
I also could never have imagined what would happen a mere three days later in New York on a Tuesday morning, the 11th of September, when terrorists attacked our country including two planes that flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan – a short taxi ride away from the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, the site of the US Open tournament.
The 2021 women’s singles championship of the US Open will be played on September 11th., the 20th. anniversary of that terrorist attack. It is the first time since 2003 that neither Venus nor Serena will participate in the tournament. Both sisters (Venus, age 41 – Serena, age 40) cite injuries that prevent them from appearing. I must admit I feel my age and a little sad that I won’t have a Williams sister to watch. But hey, two teenagers who stand on their shoulders give me hope for not only the game but also the future.
Nineteen-year-old Leylah Fernandez is the daughter of an Ecuadorian father who is her coach, a mother from the Philippines who is her cheerleader in reserved seating during her matches. Leylah’s paternal grandparents are Peruvian. When asked about his immigration to Canada, her father Jorge said:
“I don’t want to get political. That’s not what I’m doing. What I’m telling you is we’re an immigrant family, and we had nothing. So, Canada opened up its doors, and if they wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have. And I wouldn’t have been able to give them to my daughter. So, it means a lot.” (Sanket Nair, Essentially Sports)
The path to the women’s singles championship for Fernandez included wins over the #3 seed Naomi Osaka, #16 seed Angie Kerber, the #5 seed Elina Svitolina, and the #2 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-final under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium Thursday night. She will play again on Ashe for the final today at 4:00 p.m. Her opponent will be another teenager, this one from Great Britain.
Emma Raducanu was born in Toronto, Canada to her parents Ian from Romania and Renee who is Chinese. When Emma was two years old, the family immigrated to England where she began playing tennis at the age of five. Raducanu’s appearance in the final of the US Open this year is the first of any qualifier in history (man or woman) to make a Grand Slam final, the first British woman to make a Slam final in 44 years, since Virginia Wade in 1977. (It was fun to see Virginia Wade watching from the stands at Ashe.)
Raducanu won 3 qualifying matches prior to making the 2021 US Open main draw, and her run to the Grand Slam women single’s championship included wins over #11 seed Belinda Bincic who won the Gold Medal at the Tokyo Oympics this summer, #17 seed Maria Sakkari in the second semi-final match under the Thursday night lights at Ashe Stadium by crushing our home girl South Carolina native Shelby Rogers in the 4th round of the Open. Rogers defeated the #1 player in the world, Ash Barty, in a three-set unexpected victory in the third round of the slam.
Fernandez celebrated her 19th birthday on September 06 at the Open with cupcakes that looked delicious – cupcakes she shared in the locker room with Raducanu and other players. She was born September 06, 2002, and Raducanu was born two months later on November 13th. Fernandez entered the US Open ranked 73rd in the WTA singles while Raducanu came in at 150th.
Their ratings will change after their performances at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center this year. Their lives will also change: new demands, higher expectations, instant celebrity, countless decisions for their financial futures. Regardless of who wins today, both of these teenage girls have secured a place in tennis history with opportunities for a fantastic future – a future built in part by the sacrifices of their families, Althea Gibson, the Williams Sisters and their female tennis cohort, and by the remarkable Original 9 that was the first group inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer. Billie Jean King, Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid risked their careers by separating themselves from the tennis establishment to fight for equal rights with their male counterparts. When the winner deposits her check of $2.5 million, the same as the winner in the men’s championship, she can thank the Original 9.
Today, September 11th, we remember the tragedy of a terrorist attack against our country twenty years ago. As the names of those lost are read and as the bells remind us of that unspeakable horror, two immigrant teenage girls, one from Canada and one from the United Kingdom, teenagers who weren’t yet born on that day will improbably battle for a championship in New York City.
It’s the Women’s Singles Championship of the 2021 US Open Tennis Tournament – it’s more than a tennis match. It’s a glimpse of the future.
Stay safe, stay sane, please get vaccinated and please stay tuned.