When Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff face off on Wednesday night at the U.S. Open, their drawing power as young Black women in Arthur Ashe Stadium will be just the latest showcase of the legacy of the sisters Venus and Serena Williams.
Neither Williams sister is competing at this year’s tournament because of injuries — the first time both sisters are absent from Flushing Meadows since 2003. But their presence is clear throughout the tournament even though they aren’t in the field.
When Venus Williams broke through to her first U.S. Open final in 1997, she was the first Black woman to do so in nearly 40 years. Now, success by Black women in the tournament is the norm. In the four women’s singles tournaments from 2017 through 2020, six of the eight slots in the finals were filled by Black players. Naomi Osaka won the tournament twice — including in 2018 against Serena Williams — and Stephens beat Madison Keys for the title in 2017. Serena Williams also made the final in 2019.
Stephens beat Keys in the first round on Monday in a rematch of their 2017 final, leading to her showdown with Gauff in the second round.
Gauff, 17, had not been born the last time the U.S. Open was without either of the Williams sisters. She said that when she was younger, her father “spent a lot of money” on front row tickets at Ashe to watch the Williamses up close.
“Since I was 8 years old, pretty much every year coming — to watch them really,” Gauff said. “That’s probably the only reason why we spent so much money on tickets and travel, is to watch them play.”
Stephens, 28, has not been particularly close to the Williams sisters even though she looked up to them as a child. But she has formed a bond with Gauff, who grew up near Stephens in Florida.
“The evolution of her game has been really awesome,” said Stephens, who said she had known Gauff since Gauff was 8 and calls her “Cocofina” as a nickname.
“To be as established as she is now is super inspiring, super awesome,” Stephens said. She added: “She has a lot of amazing things she does in her game. Obviously she’s young so she still has things to work on, but I think she’s a very established player with great things in her game.”
Gauff said that facing Stephens at the U.S. Open would be a “full-circle moment.”
“I’ve known her for a long time, so I don’t even know what the first memory is,” Gauff said of Stephens. “I do remember when I was 10 years old, I had a birthday party at a water park, and she came to it, which is really cool. All my friends were excited that Sloane Stephens is at your birthday.”
Gauff reached the final of the 2017 U.S. Open junior tournament when she was 13, the year in which Stephens won the top singles title.