NEW YORK – A crowd gathered when Venus Williams practiced Sachia Vickery at the American Open. Children waited for signatures at the gate.
The seven-time Grand Slam champion for singles helped Vickery prepare for her first round match. Vickery lost, but the sensation of hitting with her idol was a lasting memory.
"That was actually an experience of my life for me, so I'm still a bit shocked," said Vickery, a 23-year-old African American and former top-ranked junior player.
Venus and Serena Williams are almost constantly present at the American Open since the debut of Arthur Ashe Stadium 21 years ago. Their 30 combined Grand Slam titles have changed the tennis landscape.
Many American children of color participate in youth programs, often as a reason for the superstar sisters.
"There has certainly been more diverse activity from an ethnic point of view since they appeared on the scene," said D.A. Abrams, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the U.S. Tennis Association. "During junior tournaments at higher levels they are more diverse ethnic than in the past."
The number 1 junior is the 14-year-old Afro-American Cori "Coco" Gauff, who once practiced at the same park courts in Delray Beach, Florida as the Williams sisters. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena & # 39; s coach, worked with Gauff at his academy in Paris and recently won the title of the French Open girls.
"First of all, she is a great competitor, secondly she has incredible abilities," said Mouratoglou. "Everything else is just work. And she is a hard worker. "
Several young Black players participated in the final month of the season in Flushing Meadows. Whitney Osuigwe recently won the USTA 18s Girls National title and earned a wild card in the main table. The rising Canadian stars Felix Auger-Aliassime and Francoise Abanda went through the qualifying and Auger Aliassime reached the main table.
"I grew up watching the Williams sisters," said 21-year-old Abanda, who saw them playing at the Rogers Cup in Toronto when she was fourteen. "I appreciate Venus, who has been playing for so long and at a high level, they have really great power games and maximize it."
Thousands of fans and tennis camp children from different ethnicities watched the free four-day qualifying tournament ahead of the American Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The sport was mostly white when King was a teenager in the fifties. American Althea Gibson became the first black player to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open in 1956, and Ashe won the US. Open in 1968. Both were forced to play in segregated tournaments early in their careers.
"When players take the court today, they do not look like each other," King said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "They are more of a reflection of our global society, which is a big improvement on my day and it is especially important for future generations because the children can see this change and they can strive to be part of it."
King said she would like to see more diversity on the business side, plus more female coaches and coaches of color.
Of the 15 Americans in the top 100 of the WTA final classifications in 1999, four were African-American. Serena won the American Open that year.
The current top 100 has 13 Americans, including six African-Americans: reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens at No. 3, followed by Madison Keys (No. 14), Venus (No. 16), Serena (No. 26), Taylor Townsend (No. 73) and Vickery (No.78).
The Japanese Naomi Osaka (No. 19) is also of Haitian origin. Latina players Caroline Garcia, Garbine Muguruza, Carla Suarez Navarro and Monica Puig are joined by five Chinese competitors.
The men's ATP top 100 has 21 people of color, including African-American Frances Tiafoe (No. 44) and Asian-American Mackenzie McDonald (No. 79) among the 11 best Americans. In 1999, eight of the nine American men in the top 100 were white.
Vickery signed signatures for several young Black fans, who called her name after practicing Venus. She trained with Richard Williams at the age of 8 and trained for almost a year with Venus and Serena's father in West Palm Beach.
Vickery wore a T-shirt after her first round match with the words "Black" and "white" crossed out, giving the words "man".
"I know there are not too many of us players on tour," she said. "So it's really, really great to see the young black children."
Several programs try to diversify tennis in the United States. The Williams sisters have an academy in Los Angeles and Kamau Murray, Stephens' coach, recently opened a $ 16.9 million tennis village on the south side of Chicago.
More than 200,000 children in the 50 largest American markets have access to free or cheap tennis programs from the national junior tennis and learning network and the USTA Foundation.
USTA President Katrina Adams, the first African American who holds this position, is looking forward to more growth at all levels of the seeds that Venus and Serena have planted & # 39;
"The ability to see a player with whom you can identify, compete and succeed in the same sport that you like and play, speaks volumes," she said.
Last year, the 24-year-old Stephens defeated the 37-year-old Venus in the US Open semi-final, with four Americans and three women in color. She beat good friend Keys in the final, got the trophy from Adams and earned a reward of $ 3.7 million.
Missed Serena, who in September last year his daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. bearded.
"She is, in my opinion, the biggest player who ever played our game," said Stephens, who walled up a Serena poster on the wall. "American tennis is really in bloom right now, especially the women, we represent something really strong and really powerful."