Life

The Williams Sisters’ Influence on Tennis Is Awe-Inspiring

Just ask Serena’s opponent in the U.S. Open Final.

Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka.
The Williams sisters’ impact can be seen in the careers of rising stars like Naomi Osaka.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images, Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

On Saturday, Serena Williams will step onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium once again, aiming for her seventh title at the U.S. Open and her first Grand Slam win since the life-threatening delivery of her daughter in 2017. Her win on Thursday against Anastasija Sevastova placed Williams one step closer to tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. But it was the semifinal that Williams didn’t play in—between rising stars Naomi Osaka and Madison Keys—that shows just how enormous an influence Serena and her sister Venus Williams have had on their sport writ large.

After the 20-year-old Osaka’s decisive win, she said on the court that she’d been inspired to victory because “I really want to play Serena.”

Later, Osaka said she’d dreamed of playing Serena in a Grand Slam final since she was a little kid. But no matter which woman had won that semifinal, Williams would’ve ended up going toe-to-toe against someone whose career she and her sister had catalyzed and shaped.

Both Keys and Osaka grew up idolizing Serena and Venus. In an interview with Vogue last summer, Keys, whose father is black, described how she got into tennis. “When I was 4, I walked into my parents’ bedroom and Wimbledon was on TV. I saw Venus Williams, and I wanted her outfit!” she explained. Osaka, who is half-Japanese and half-Haitian and grew up in the United States, followed the Williams sisters’ path even more closely. Her father Leonard Francois says Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father and coach, mapped the path for how to train his daughters. In a recent profile of Osaka in the New York Times Magazine, Brook Larmer describes how “one evening in 1999 … Francois became transfixed by a broadcast of the French Open featuring the American prodigies Venus and Serena Williams, then 18 and 17, who teamed up to win the doubles title that year.” Larmer continues:

Francois played little tennis. But Richard Williams, the sisters’ father and coach, had played none at all. And Williams had created a plan to turn his daughters into champions, teaching them how to serve big and hit hard from every corner of the court. “The blueprint was already there,” Francois told me. “I just had to follow it.”

Both Keys and Osaka surely faced many of the same prejudices in the lily-white realm of tennis that Serena and Venus did, but they did so in a sport where so many ceilings had already been shattered. Unlike, say, Tiger Woods, who changed the face of his sport but has remained mostly solitary as a person of color in professional golf, the Williams sisters have opened up tennis to people who look like them. It’s incredibly powerful to see that, two decades after Venus and Serena emerged as the new faces of their game, three of the four women in the U.S. Open semifinals were black. The Williams sisters will leave an indelible mark on their sport because of all the titles they’ve won. They’re legends because of all the women they inspired to pick up a racket.