2020 Black History Month:
Venus Williams' 1997 US Open debut
Ashley Marshall | February 14, 2020
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. ADVERTISEMENT Today, we look at Venus Williams' US Open debut in 1997.
Unseeded but certainly not unknown, 17-year-old Venus Williams made a statement with a memorable run to the US Open final in her Flushing Meadows debut in 1997.
With raw athleticism and prodigious power, the teen ushered in a new era of African-American dominance, continuing the legacy of pioneers like her mentor Zina Garrison, who had retired less than a year earlier, and paving the way for future generations, from sister Serena to current rising star Coco Gauff.
Williams made her Grand Slam debut at the 1997 French Open, where she reached the second round, before losing her first match at Wimbledon the following month.
She came into the US Open having played just 18 tournaments since becoming a part-time pro as a 14-year-old three years earlier and, with a ranking of No. 66 in the world, was hardly considered a title threat. She had dominated the juniors scene in the little time she spent there, but she was largely seen as a bright if unpolished work-in-progress, despite her first Top-10 win over Iva Majoli in Indian Wells that spring.
After dropping the first set in her opening-round match at the 1997 US Open to Larisa Neiland, Williams settled down, winning 24 of the next 26 games to cruise into the third round. She upset No. 8 seed Anke Huber in straight sets then toppled Joannette Kruger to reach the quarterfinals.
Williams defeated Sandrine Testud to kick off the second week before outlasting No. 11 seed Irina Spirlea of Romania in a thrilling semifinal, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6. In reaching the championship match, Williams became the first unseeded women’s finalist since 1958 and the first woman to reach the US Open final on her first attempt since Pam Shriver 19 years earlier.
Williams fell to another teen, Martina Hingis, in the championship match, but her surprise run put her firmly on the tennis map and set the stage for the great things to come.
Later this summer, Venus will turn 40 years old. She’s the oldest player in the Top 100 and the second-oldest active player on the tour. She has played in a record 85 Grand Slam tournaments, winning the US Open twice, in 2000 and 2001, and tasting success on Wimbledon’s lawns five times. She’s won medals at four different Olympics—also a record—and she has crafted a legacy that goes deep beyond wins and losses.
She is a fashion designer and an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a sister. She’s a champion, an inspiration and a pioneer. While her breakthrough came as a 17-year-old at her home Slam 23 years ago, the legacy she’ll leave will stretch for decades. We’re already seeing it in today’s young stars, and there’s no doubt we’ll see it for many years to come.