2020 Black History Month: First women's prime-time final, 2001
The long and storied history of tennis in the U.S. features a multitude of significant chapters authored by African-Americans. From the sport’s earliest days through its modern era, countless contributions to tennis’ growth and success have been made by players, coaches and administrators of color. Some helped tear down barriers; some have torn up record books. Several have transcended the sport they helped to build to become true American icons. All have been an inspiration, providing this sport, those who play it and those who revel in it, with myriad memorable moments.
As we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, USTA.com recalls some of the most memorable of those important moments; milestones that helped to change the face of this sport—literally and figuratively—and inspire us all to raise our game. Today, we look at the first women's prime-time final in 2001, which featured Venus and Serena Williams.
It was fitting that the first-ever women’s prime-time final at the US Open featured the two American women who were in the middle of ushering in a golden era for U.S. tennis.
Meeting for the first time in a major final, Venus and Serena Williams had the spotlight all to themselves when they contested the championship match in Flushing Meadows on Sept. 8, 2001.
The women’s final was no longer squeezed in after two men’s semifinals, or between two men’s semifinals, or between the women’s doubles final and men’s final, all of which had happened at various points over the past two decades.
And no longer were the last two women standing in the 128-player field placed in an ambiguous "not before” time slot, as Serena had been when she met Martina Hingis in 1999 or when Venus defeated Lindsay Davenport the following year. The women knew when they were to play and, more importantly, so did the rest of the world watching on TV.
Prime time. Saturday night. Under the lights. On CBS. The soon-to-be two most dominant players of their generation, sisters, fighting for the title with all the pomp and circumstance the historic occasion deserved.
The siblings walked out of the locker room together and chatted all the way down the hallway and to their chairs, smiles on their faces as they waved to the crowd. They looked like best friends going out to hit on their neighborhood courts, their laughter betraying the grandeur of the occasion of two African-American women meeting for the first time in a Slam finale.
Musicians from the Tony award-winning show Blast! performed on the court and throughout the stands. Diana Ross performed a sparkling rendition of God Bless America, then dashed across the other side of the net to hug a beaming Serena. It's hard to say which superstar was more excited by the embrace. Fireworks lit up the Flushing sky over tennis’ biggest stadium. Legend and pioneer Billie Jean King performed the coin toss before an expectant crowd.
The final had a special feel to it—two hard-hitting sisters battling on home soil aside—before a ball was even struck.
“It's fantastic. It is,” Venus said after a semifinal win over countrywoman Jennifer Capriati that set up the Williams showdown. “When I first heard about the prime-time final, I was hoping that I'd be there. I was gonna make it my personal goal, you know, my personal dream to be in the final. And it's happened. What do you know, there's Serena, too. It's great.”
Once the final began, defending champion Venus maintained the form that saw her reach the championship match without dropping a set.
From 2-1 down in the opening set, Venus won five consecutive games, breaking Serena at 2-2 and 2-4 to take the 28-minute opener.
The momentum continued into the second set, with Venus breaking to love in the first game and consolidating the break to make it seven unanswered games.
Serena broke her sister in the fourth and sixth games to get the second set back to 3-all, but consecutive double faults at 4-4 paved the way for Venus to forge a decisive edge. Serving for the championship, Venus raced out to a 40-15 lead before converting her first match point.
Said tennis historian and Hall of Fame journalist Steve Flink in 2018: “It was entirely appropriate that the Williams sisters were the two competitors in the first prime-time final because they did so much respectively to raise the profile of the game. Meanwhile, Serena had been the US Open victor in 1999, and Venus had taken the title in 2000. They were starting to dominate the game. They thoroughly deserved to be facing each other on this historic occasion. … A new standard had been set for the women’s final. No one would upstage them on such a big occasion.”