The U.S. Open: 5 Prominent Figures in Women's Tennis

These Grand Slam careers trace the ascendance of women's tennis.

Posted Sep 11, 2020

Grand Slam tennis matches comprise four international tennis tournaments: the Australian, French, and American Opens, and Wimbledon. Yesterday evening, the semifinal round of the U.S. Open was held in Queens, New York. No fans were allowed in the stands.

Serena Williams, who has dominated women’s tennis since she won her first Grand Slam in Queens in 1999, is seeking her 24th major victory, which would tie Australian Margaret Court’s career total.  

She lost her match to Victoria Azarenka, who is from Belarus (now much in the news for the open rebellion of its population to its last continuing European dictator). Azarenka will play 22-year-old wunderkind Naomi Osaka for the championship. Osaka won the U.S. Open against Serena in 2018, as well as the 2019 Australian Open.

Much has been made of Osaka’s adopting #blacklivesmatter face coverings during the tournament.  (“I am a follower, not a leader. But I felt that I must speak up.”) Osaka’s mother is Japanese and her father Haitian. She has been raised largely in the U.S. but plays under the Japanese flag.

Let’s turn to five figures in women’s tennis who have come to the fore during this pandemic-circumscribed championship tournament.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams is now approaching 39, an advanced age for a professional tennis player. She had a daughter, then returned to the tennis circuit in 2018. But she hasn’t won a major tournament since then, having lost four finals matches.

In her long career, along with her stunning successes in the U.S. Open and worldwide, Williams has had some distressing failures, including emotional outbursts (which I describe here). In fact, her 2018 U.S. Open loss to Osaka was one of them, marked by three penalties, Williams screaming, and then-20-year-old Osaka bursting into tears. Williams’ third penalty was for calling chair umpire Carlos Ramos a thief for, she said, “stealing” a game from her.

Up from Compton

Serena Williams and her sister Venus were raised in Compton, California, where their father, Richard, homeschooled the sisters as well as teaching them tennis. The trio formed a tightly-knit, highly-regulated group, one that held themselves apart from other players and professional tennis organizations. For instance, Richard Williams withdrew his daughters from a Florida tennis academy because he felt that the other parents regarded his daughters as outsiders based on their race.

The Williams sisters’ isolation abated as they became unmatched tennis stars. They acquired professional management, created elaborate commercial empires, and became extremely privileged Americans. Serena married a Caucasian man in what appears to be a highly supportive shared-parenting relationship.

Victoria Azarenka

Based on her previous outbursts, observers were apprehensive about how Williams would react to her loss to Azarenka—a woman she had beaten many times before. Williams had won the first set but then dropped the next two. For her part, Azarenka had won major events—the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013—and was once ranked number one in the world. But, now 31, she hadn’t been a top player for many years. Azarenka too became a parent, in 2016. Her parenting was marred, however, by a long custody battle, which caused her to largely withdraw from tennis.

Seemingly out of the blue, Azarenka resumed her top-tier status this year and came into the Open on a winning streak. It seems that parenthood had stabilized her, once her custody battle was resolved.

And how did Williams react to the loss? Graciously. She has been friendly with Azarenka over their long competitive history. And, seemingly, Williams could sympathize with Azarenka’s struggles, perhaps given her own secure marital and parental status.

There is some pessimism that Williams will ever gain her 24th Grand Slam victory. But mastering her emotions and reaching out to a competitive player may be life victories that exceed an abstract numerical designation.

Jennifer Brady

Osaka will now play Azarenka in the U.S. Open final (that’s right, no Americans will participate). The same night that Azarenka beat Williams, two sets to one, Osaka won by the same margin over Jennifer Brady. Brady is a 25-year-old professional player who has never won a Grand Slam event — in fact, this was her first semifinal. But, like Azarenka, Brady has had strong success recently, capped by her Open performance.

Interestingly, Brady attended the tennis academy run by Chris Evert, a former tennis champion who is now a key ESPN tennis commentator. Evert noted frequently how Brady had “matured.” That is, Brady had always had strong tennis skills. But something had kept her from achieving peak performance levels. Instead, she withdrew from professional tennis to attend UCLA, then returned to the professional circuit.

Evert repeatedly marveled at Brady’s improved emotional resilience, which she attributed to her time in college, and particularly her interactions with average students who were not a part of the professional sports bubble.

Indeed, at one point, Evert announced to a worldwide audience, “I’ve been married (and divorced) three times. Maybe if I’d had that experience, I’d have had one husband.”

Chris Evert

The winner herself of 18 Grand Slam titles, Evert was notable for her emotional and tennis stability, winning at least one such title for 13 straight years. Now 65, Evert was at one time regarded as a tennis ingénue. She entered her first professional tournament at the age of 14. At the age of 15, she defeated the then-number-one tennis player in the world, Margaret Court.

Evert was noted for her reserved personal style, both on the court and off. She was raised in a devout Catholic family. But her personal life didn’t reflect such equanimity. Initially, she was engaged to fellow tennis champion Jimmy Connors, a much more expansive personality with seemingly a great deal more life experience. She and Connors didn’t marry, but Evert did marry fellow tennis player John Lloyd (becoming for a time Chris Evert Lloyd).  

Evert and Lloyd separated after she had a much-publicized affair with British singer and actor Adam Faith. She and Lloyd later divorced. Evert then married skiing Olympian Andy Mill, with whom she had three children. She and Mill divorced, with Evert paying Mill a $7 million settlement. Evert left Mill to marry her third husband, professional golfer Greg Norman, a marriage that lasted 15 months.

Evert has transformed herself into an extremely worldly, articulate tennis and life observer (as her on-screen comments about her marital life during the 2020 Open might indicate). She has reflected on both her mental toughness and the difficulties she has experienced — perhaps placed — in her own life.

Billy Jean King

The arena in which these matches have been played is named for Billy Jean King. Unlike all of the other women in this blog post, King (now 74) wasn’t present at the Open. But she did make several televised appearances alongside Evert, one of her tennis rivals.

King is now perhaps best known for defeating middle-aged (55-year-old) male tennis player Bobby Riggs in the nationally heralded “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. The match was regarded as highly symbolic in establishing women’s equality in the tennis world.

But King’s efforts on behalf of equality far exceeded that one match. In order to establish women’s status in the sport — particularly in regards to pay levels — King formed the independent Tennis Women’s Association, including team tennis. No other prominent professional women tennis stars followed her, and the Association eventually dissolved. But the group ultimately played a strong role in elevating women’s tennis to an equal place, financially and in terms of respect for women’s tennis.

Billy Jean King in an unmatched force for women’s equality in sport, which Evert (who didn’t join her at the time) repeatedly acknowledged on television. For her part, equally gracious, King gives Evert and fellow professional Martina Navratilova credit for elevating the game further.

The stories of these five women trace the remarkable ascendance of women in American sports and life.