Chase Rubin: Williams Sisters Have Changed Tennis for Good

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Chase Rubin, a volunteer tennis coach and community worker based in Philadelphia, has been witness to some of the greatest feats in tennis history. He caught the Grand Slams during the heyday of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, and Martina Hingis, and is delighted by the surge of American interest in tennis. He attributes much of that interest to the Federer-Nadal and the Williams sisters’ rivalries. Today, he tells us about the impact that the Williams have made on the world of tennis and beyond the court.

The rivalry between sisters Venus and Serena Williams has been ongoing since 1998, when they first faced off in the second round of the Australian Open. Even if the match was shorter than expected, it was just an indication of things to come, starting with their Key Biscayne final in 1999, which Venus won 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. Since then, they have matched up 28 times, with Serena holding a 17-11 lead over her elder sister. Serena also has 71 singles titles to her sister’s 49, still a record of sorts.

But where did this competitive fire come from? Before the Williams sisters came along, African-American women were a rarity in individual sports, much less a sport with an elitist connotation as tennis. Their father, who played recreational tennis, was inspired by 1978 French Open champion Virginia Ruzici, and decided that his daughters would follow in her footsteps. He started giving Venus and Serena lessons at a very young age, and took them to the public tennis courts in Compton. Because they were playing each other a lot back then, they developed both a fierce rivalry and a close bond, one that would serve as the catalyst for their careers.

The Williams sisters’ impact on tennis cannot be overestimated. At the beginning of their rivalry, women’s tennis did not make much of a dent on the TV ratings. But when the two faced off in the 2001 US Open, the final match drew more viewers than the college football game between Nebraska and Notre Dame, which were both in the AP rankings that year. In fact, broadcasters have reported higher viewership during US Open finals in which both sisters were playing.

Aside from the TV ratings, the impact of the Williams sisters’ competitive fire can be seen in the increased interest of African-Americans in tennis, either as professionals or as recreational players. At the grassroots level, one-third of all new players are of African-American or Hispanic descent, and even the president of the US Tennis Association has acknowledged the Williams’ sisters influence on that trend.

Finally, the Williams sisters have redefined what it means to be an African-American woman in the world of sports. Prior to their rise up the rankings, women’s tennis was relatively slow-paced and genteel. However, the Williams sisters brought a certain flair to the game; their flamboyant outfits and muscular builds have set the bar very high. As singles players and as a doubles team, the two sisters are constantly pushing the envelope of femininity and womanhood. In fact, Venus has made a solo appearance on the cover of Vogue the first African-American female athlete to do so.

I can personally feel the effects of the rivalry and their partnership. Since they took the world by storm, more African-American kids from Philadelphia and its inner city have entered my group’s tennis workshop, and I am glad to report that many of them have received college tennis scholarships. This is why I am forever indebted to the Williams sisters – they are a tough act to follow, and their rivalry and partnership will rank right up there as one of the best in sports.