Serena needs to bring back ‘catsuit tennis’  To win another Slam, Williams must show the world we’re not ‘ready for this jelly’

NEW YORK — Serena Williams didn’t look like herself for most of Saturday’s US Open final defeat against Bianca Andreescu, and she knew it.

“I believe I could have played better,” Williams said in her postmatch news conference. “I believe I could have done more. I believe I could have just been more Serena today. I honestly don’t think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”

Serena did show up, but not for enough of the match. Her first serve seemed to have disintegrated, and she double-faulted on key points. After far too long, she started to come back to tie the second set at 5-5 before losing 6-3, 7-5.

The crowd responded with ear-splitting roars every time Williams won a point, and then another, and then a game in the second set. They had come hoping to witness history in the form of a 24th major victory that would have tied Margaret Court’s record for most Grand Slam singles titles. They came to see what Williams does best, to witness what sportswriter Lindsay Gibbs dubbed “Catsuit Tennis.”

In 2002, here at Flushing Meadows, Williams debuted her first black catsuit, a Puma creation that was bound to turn heads. She’d won her first Grand Slam title ever at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1999, then exited in the quarterfinals in 2000, and then lost to her older sister Venus in the 2001 final.

In this Sept. 6, 2002, photo, Serena Williams wears a black Puma catsuit as she plays Lindsay Davenport in the US Open semifinals in New York. Williams went on to win the tournament for the second time.

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

But 2002 — she owned 2002. Williams came into the US Open that year with the swagger of a woman who’d won Roland Garros and then Wimbledon and done it the Williams Way, the way her father, Richard, had taught her: by embracing her difference and her exceptionalism.

The catsuit said it all.

Paired with blond microbraids, it was shiny, form-fitting and more than a little bit dangerous. The sort of thing you dare not wear unless you’ve got the goods to back it up. It moved with her, gliding over her curves. Puma constructed the catsuit with two heavy parallel seams running down the front, from the armpits, over her breasts and midriff, all the way to her thighs. It had a crew neck, with a zipper that converted it into a V-neck. Serena paired it with a pink wristband and a $29,000 Harry Winston tennis bracelet.

In 2001, Destiny’s Child released a hit single, “Bootylicious.” The song opened with a guitar riff pulled from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” But it was the repeated lines of the chorus that made it a hit: “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.”

The Catsuit didn’t say, “I think.” Instead, it screamed, “I know you’re not ready for this jelly.”

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan deemed the look “salacious.”

“… her tight black tennis romper was the stylistic equivalent of trash talk,” Givhan continued. “It looked trashy. And it did her a disservice. … Her admirers paint a picture of poise and exuberance, talent and physical grace. One only wishes that Williams would use her wealth and notoriety to paint herself in equally flattering terms.”

It didn’t matter how much it rattled tennis watchers that the Williams sisters, especially Serena, refused to be swaddled in chaste, preppy tradition. There was no romance there, just unapologetic domination.

Serena won the whole enchilada in New York in 2002, defeating Venus, the defending champ, 6-4, 6-3. Then she went on the win the 2003 Australian Open, thereby establishing the #SerenaSlam. The catsuit was a symbolic representation of everything that seemed to fuel the Williamses. They would take everyone’s disapproval, run it through the family catalytic converter and turn it into wins. They carried themselves like professional wrestling villains who relish ticking everyone off by demolishing the favorites.

Serena Williams in action wearing another catsuit against Julia Goerges of Germany during the 2018 French Open on June 2 in Paris.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

It made sense then, as Williams was beginning her postpartum comeback, that she’d don a catsuit at the 2018 French Open, albeit one that ran down the length of her legs. Williams was relying on the compression to aid in preventing blood clots. She said the catsuit made her feel like a “warrior princess” from Wakanda, and it caused so much of a stir that French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli banned it from future tournaments and accused Williams of not having enough respect for the game.

Williams enthusiastically embraces her role as a tennis iconoclast — one does not show up on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar seemingly inviting haters to kiss her unretouched bottom unless one takes pleasure in being defiantly cheeky. (Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, is a philosophical match, showing up wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt to Williams’ first-round contest against Maria Sharapova on Aug. 26. It appeared to be a rather pointed reference to Sharapova’s 2016 suspension for using the banned substance meldonium.)

But for much of Saturday, Catsuit Serena was nowhere to be found.

Williams entered Arthur Ashe Stadium the fan favorite and in one of the more conventional competition looks she’s ever worn outside of Wimbledon: a long-sleeved lilac top, paired with a twirly skater skirt. It seemed like an odd choice for a Serena final, especially one against a 19-year-old opponent whose aggressive, muscly style mimics her own. In Williams’ two previous matches, she wore a 2019 version of The Catsuit, this one designed by Nike. She also wore it in her opening victory over Sharapova. The material was more matte than wet n wild, but the message it carried was the same: “I’m nearly 38, I almost died giving birth, and no, you’re still not ready for this jelly.”

Williams pumps her fist after defeating Elina Svitolina in the semifinals of the US Open on Sept. 5.

JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

She pounded down quarterfinal and semifinal victories against Qiang Wang and Elina Svitolina, respectively, with her brand-name style of fierce, authoritative drop shots, excellent serving and unrelenting dominance. Knowing her preference for quick, soul-demolishing baseline games, her opponents would try to force her to the net. It didn’t matter. Her look matched her game. Saturday, however, was another story.

At this point, Williams need not accomplish another thing to prove that she’s the Greatest of All Time. Saturday, she wouldn’t even acknowledge that she’s eyeing Court’s record.

“I’m not necessarily chasing a record,” Williams said in her postmatch news conference. “I’m just trying to win Grand Slams. It’s definitely frustrating, you know. But for the most part, I just am still here. I’m still doing what I can do.”

But Williams has now lost four straight Grand Slam finals, and the 2019 losses, in particular, have come after exciting tournament runs characterized, by, well, Catsuit Tennis. She’s still terrific, but her position within the game has changed. She’s no longer the upstart foil. Now she’s a respected grande dame.

If she is to tie Court’s record and then surpass it, another catsuit might be exactly what she needs.

Statue honoring Althea Gibson unveiled at the US Open ‘She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis’

Just before a sculpture honoring Althea Gibson was unveiled Monday at the start of the 2019 US Open, former tennis pro Leslie Allen recalled a trip she took to Africa with Gibson, the first African American to win a tennis Grand Slam event. At one point, the two were talking and Gibson pointed toward a door.

“My job was to bust down — to break down — that door,” Gibson said to Allen. “So that you and the next generation could walk right on through. And each one of us would have more than the next.”

That generations were able to walk through that barrier — players such as Allen, Zina Garrison, Sloane Stephens and Venus and Serena Williams — was made possible by Gibson, who broke the color barrier in international tennis on the way to winning 11 Grand Slam (five singles) events during her professional career which began in 1941 in the American Tennis Association (the oldest African-American sports organization in America) before intense lobbying let her to break the color barrier and play at the U.S. National Championships (now the US Open) in 1950.

At a complex that’s named after Billie Jean King, and includes stadiums named after another pioneer (Arthur Ashe) and a jazz legend (Louis Armstrong), it’s rather perplexing that Gibson — who was once feted with a ticker tape parade down New York’s Canyon of Champions after winning Wimbledon in 1957 — wasn’t honored before her death in 2003.

The sculpture — a penetrating image of Gibson’s head emerging from a granite block, with five blocks on the side — sits on the southeast side of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The image of Gibson bursting from the blocks is symbolic, as well as one of her shoulders being exposed — the shoulder that the sculptor, Eric Goulder, said that “everybody since has stood on.”

The artwork weighs a total 18 tons. It was transported via an ocean freighter to the United States from Italy.

King, who was so inspired by the tennis pioneer that she used to sleep with Gibson’s 1958 biography “I Always Wanted to be Somebody,” said she had been pushing for recognition for Gibson on the grounds of the US Open since the 1970s. “Without a doubt, Althea was our Jackie Robinson,” King said.

Tennis great Althea Gibson (left) shows baseball legend Jackie Robinson (right) her backhand grip on Feb. 16, 1951, at the ANTA Theater Tennis Tournament in Manhattan.

Harvey Weber/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Incredibly, the final push to have Gibson — who was also the first black woman to play on the professional golf tour — recognized at the US Open came from a North Carolina youth tennis program, One Love, which is run by a friend of the late Gibson.

Two years ago that friend, Lenny Simpson, had his tennis students watch a documentary about Gibson. Afterward, the group discussed ways that Gibson should be honored, with Simpson explaining something needed to be done “even if it’s in the form of a hot dog stand.” That “hot dog stand” line was included in one of the letters the students sent to Katrina Adams, who at the time was the president of the USTA.

“They lit a fire under me,” Adams said on Monday. “That really touched me and got me going.”

Several of those letter writers were among the several hundred people on hand to watch the ceremony honoring Gibson. “We wrote the letters because we felt like she deserved it, but we didn’t know what would happen,” said 14-year-old Jal’leia Jeffries, one of the 40 members of One Love who made the 10-hour bus ride to New York for the ceremony. “I was excited that our letters actually did something.”

Aaliyah Jones, 14, who had seen the black cloth covering the sculpture as the group visited the grounds of the US Open over the weekend, was excited to see the final product. “It’s just nice knowing that our work paid off and that Althea Gibson got a statue that she rightfully deserved,” she said. “For me to have played a part of this, it makes me feel like I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.”

The One Love tennis group takes a picture with the Althea Gibson statue.

Courtesy of Jerry Bembry

Simpson, the head of the program, said he felt weak in the knees when he approached the sculpture. “I got goose bumps, and the hair on my arm started to raise up,” Simpson said. “When I finally settled down I just stood in front of it and said to myself, ‘Yes, the day has finally arrived.’ ”

There are reasons that a venue hasn’t been named after Gibson, and why a stadium on the grounds is named after a jazz artist. The USTA has a policy that blocks the naming of another court after a player, and also has an agreement with New York City barring the renaming of Louis Armstrong Stadium (which was inherited from the 1964 World’s Fair, where it was originally built as the Singer Bowl and renamed for the jazz artist in 1973).

Whether those reasons for not honoring Gibson were obstacles or excuses, she has finally received her proper recognition on the grounds of the US Open.

“It’s great that we finally have something to honor her here,” King said. “Her story told me what a true champion looked like, and to never give up. She opened up the door for all of us, enlightening all of us and inspiring all of us.”

Tracking Serena Williams’ journey through pictures 20 images of the tennis star that chronicle her personal achievements

Serena Williams has never been average.

While growing up, as friends spent time playing outside or lounging lazily during summers, she and sister Venus were focused. For as long as their father, Richard, had the ability to teach his daughters the art of tennis, there would be practice to perfect the craft. But it would be Williams whose passion for the sport would change how audiences watched tennis and how black women were seen in the sport.

At the age of 14, Serena turned professional and eventually began beating opponents one by one internationally. Williams’ status as a young tennis pro invited scrutiny from critics who refused to take her seriously, but she showed her strength using nothing but a ball and racket.

It wouldn’t take long for fans to see why and how she would dominate nearly every court she played on. And here we are, 820 career wins and 23 Grand Slam singles titles later.

Williams may be a tough competitor who wears her heart on her sleeve, but there’s an innate beauty about her grace and humility. Even during the pitfalls and losses in her career, she still finds a smile to congratulate competitors — most of whom have looked up to her in admiration their entire careers. It isn’t enough for most girls to want to play against their idol. They still wish to be their idol.

Off the court, Williams isn’t afraid to candidly talk about being a mom to her 1-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., who seemed to give Williams’ life new meaning, a different set of expectations and unmatched motivation.

She exudes power and fearlessness and redefines the meaning of a true competitor.

She is Serena Williams, a woman who continually changes the game of tennis one serve at a time.

Serena Williams in action on a tennis court in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Serena Williams (right) and her sister Venus (left) stand with former President Ronald Reagan (center) at a tennis camp in Florida in 1990.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Serena and her sister Venus ride with their father Richard Williams at a tennis camp in Florida in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Lindsay Davenport (R) gives a thumbs up as teammates, (L-R) Venus Williams, Monica Seles, and Serena Williams of the USA pose after receiving the Fed Cup trophy after defeating Russia in 1999.

JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams celebrates her victory against Rita Kuti Kis during the first round at Wimbledon in 2001.

Jon Buckle/EMPICS/Getty Images

Venus and Serena Williams of the celebrate gold after winning the Women’s Doubles Tennis Final during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Gary M Prior/Getty Images

Serena Williams on court versus Jennifer Capriati during the quarter finals of the 2004 US Open.

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Serena poses in the first ever ESPN The Magazine Body Issue in 2009.

James White for ESPN

Serena Williams (left) and Vogue editor Anna Wintour (right) pose for a photo before the spring 2009 Zac Posen show during New York Fashion Week in September 2008.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Serena Williams reacts as she is attired in traditional regalia on February 23, 2010 in the village of Wee, Makueni district, southeast of Nairobi as she inaugurates a school she funded. The school was built in collaboration with the charity ‘Build African Schools’.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams hugs the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka during the 2013 US Open.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Fans press up against a fence to watch Serena Williams take part in Nike’s NYC Street Tennis event in August 2015.

AP Photo/Diego Corredor

Serena Williams celebrates with the winner’s trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish, on the centre court balcony after her women’s singles final victory over Spain’s Garbine Muguruza during the the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

A patron takes a picture of a photograph of Serena Williams on display at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow. The photograph was part of an exhibition titled “The Cal: Pirelli Calendar 2016. Annie Leibovitz” as part of Photobiennale 2016 at the museum.

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images

Serena Williams and her husband Alexis Ohanian arrive for the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle in Windsor, near London, England, Saturday, May 19, 2018.

AP Photo/Gareth Fuller

Serena Williams takes a selfie with husband Alexis Ohanian and their baby, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., before a match in the first round of Fed Cup in Asheville, N.C., on Feb. 10, 2018.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

At the 2018 French Open, Serena Williams wore a black catsuit that she said served a medical purpose. French Open officials have since implemented a stricter dress code that bans similar suits.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams during the trophy ceremony after the 2018 US Open Final. Naomi Osaka won the US Open after Serena Williams accused the umpire of being a ‘thief’ in some of the most dramatic scenes at a Grand Slam final. Williams was given a game penalty for her outburst, which followed racquet smashing and another code violation as Osaka won 6-2 6-4.

Serena Williams arrives for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019. Williams was a host for the 2019 Gala, which theme was Camp: Notes on Fashion” inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”.

ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

The ESPYS Collection Portraits of past and present stars set the stage for this year’s awards show, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET


US Open champion Sloane Stephens is teaching kids how to play the game She is rebuilding tennis courts in Compton and encouraging kids to live healthy lifestyles

Eight months after winning the US Open and two weeks after taking the championship trophy at the Miami Open, tennis slayer Sloane Stephens is taking time to pursue her passion: helping kids with tennis.

Stephens and her foundation recently teamed up with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in Compton, California, where she hosted the Sloane Stephens Foundation Net Generation Day. The courts were rebuilt by The Sloane Stephens Foundation and the Compton Unified School District. She helped 400 elementary and middle school students with tennis drills while encouraging healthy lifestyles.

“I just love kids and I think tennis has given me so many opportunities in my life, and just to be able to give that back to give another kid an opportunity to play a sport that’s given me so much of my life,” Stephens said.

The occasion was a joint effort with Net Generation, USTA’s youth tennis brand launched to connect tennis providers with youths ages 5 to 18.

“Net Gen is a great resource to find programs,” Stephens said. “It’s just like another tool. There are so many things you can do.”

Thousands of tennis providers are listed on the Net Generation website, which has resources including links to free apparel and a directory to help families find accessible tennis programs in their areas.

Net Gen Day was the perfect match for the activities she handles with the Sloane Stephens Foundation.

“I do after-school tennis in Compton Unified for the school district,” she said. “I have 23 schools. I do after-school, I have Saturday tennis and I have recess tennis. They do 10 weeks of tennis straight, and at the end they have a huge culminating event where they compete against each other. It’s like a huge play day. We have lunch, DJs, games, prizes, a little carnival, and everyone gets to come together and compete to show off what they learned. We keep doing it over and over. It’s the same kids. They keep getting better and better.”

Sloane Stephens holds court during her foundation’s Net Generation Day at Centennial High School in Compton, California, on April 12.

Stephens’ social responsibility is an act of reciprocity to the game that the 25-year-old says opened doors for her.

“I played at a park and they had a JTL [National Junior Tennis and Learning],” Stephens said. “It’s a little bit different now. I have my own foundation. We’re in schools and stuff but, all in all, the same concept. But all the programming is free. All the equipment is free. It makes it easy. It’s very accessible, which makes it great.”

For Stephens, life is a balancing act with social responsibility a backdrop of her time off the court.

“[I] take it day by day, try not to get overwhelmed,” Stephens said. “I feel like I’m always better when I’m doing a lot of things at one time. I just try to do things that I love and I’m always passionate about so I never lose that spark.”

Stephens said working on her foundation was a learning process that involved the realization that she can’t interact with the children as much as she desires.

“I think the hardest part is not being able to be there every day,” she said. “Because I love them so much I feel like they’re like my own children. … It’s amazing to see their improvement and see them getting better and just seeing them be excited about something.”

Born in Plantation, Florida, Stephens often trains in Carson, California. Her successful junior tennis career included doubles titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in 2010. She became the youngest player in the Top 100 and the 2017 US Open women’s singles champion.

“I want to feel like I’ve given as many kids the opportunity to play tennis as possible,” Stephens said. “Giving them the right tools to be able to have those opportunities and capitalize off of them, for me that would be a success.”

Trailblazer Ora Mae Washington should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Her feats were ignored by white media but chronicled in the black press

UPDATE—Ora Mae Washington is a part of the newest Basketball Hall of Fame class.

Every year around this time, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announces who it will enshrine in September from among hundreds of eligible players, coaches, referees and contributors.

Since 2007, I’ve been publishing a list of African-American pioneers from the mostly forgotten Black Fives Era of basketball who, in my opinion, are its most deserving candidates for enshrinement in the Hall.

The Black Fives Era lasted from 1904 — when basketball was first introduced to African-Americans on a large-scale, organized basis — to the racial integration of the NBA in 1950. During this period, dozens of all-black teams emerged, flourished and excelled.

One individual, Ora Mae Washington, has been on my list since the first one in 2007. Few realize that this sports pioneer, born in Virginia on Jan. 23, 1898, and raised in the Germantown section of North Philadelphia, was perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, regardless of race.

During the 1930s and ’40s, she won 11 straight Colored Women’s Basketball World Championship titles — 12 total. Washington also won nine straight women’s singles titles between 1929 and 1937 with the American Tennis Association, an all-black governing body formed to counter the racially exclusive United States Lawn Tennis Association (today’s USTA). She also won 12 straight ATA doubles championships, starting in 1925.

Washington is a forgotten trailblazer not only because the history of the Black Fives Era was long overlooked but also because she was at her peak during a time when female participation in rigorous athletic competition was frowned upon. Why? There were the standard concerns about exploitation and the risk of exhaustion for the daintier sex. Bowling, swimming, tennis and golf, were OK, but basketball? Not so much. What’s more, these archaic views were shared and promoted by some of America’s leading women at the time.

As a result, starting in the 1920s, sports educators and authorities began a systematic effort to curtail female hoops. In 1923, the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation launched a campaign against women’s competition in high schools and colleges as well as in the Olympic Games, under the leadership of Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. secretary of commerce. Lou Henry Hoover was also the national president of the Girl Scouts of America.

These efforts were devastatingly effective. By 1930, only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges had women’s varsity basketball teams, down from nearly a quarter just a decade earlier. Women’s basketball was nipped in the bud just as interest and participation were beginning to blossom, and right when the pipeline for its growth was being established.

The insidious hidden effect of these efforts was to solidify a warped perception of the roles that men and women were “supposed” to play in American society as a whole.

Nevertheless, Washington walked into this context without blinking an eye.

As a youngster, she was a tennis prodigy and had already become famous through that sport by the time basketball caught her attention. In 1930, she joined all-black Germantown Hornets, a squad connected to the country’s first Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, established in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1918. She promptly led the team to a 22-1 record and the Colored Women’s National Championship title for 1930-31.

In late 1931, the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s oldest black newspaper, organized a new African-American female team known as the Tribune Girls. Washington left the Germantown squad to join the Tribunes before the start of the next season, setting the “Newsgirls” up to dominate African-American women’s basketball for the next decade. Their trademark was “snappy playing and sharp shooting.” Soon, Washington was being hailed as “the best Colored player in the world” and became the first black female sports superstar.

African-American women’s basketball teams were commonly known by their once politically correct, now bewildering, nicknames, such as Sepia Amazons of the maple court, Chocolate Coeds, dusky hardwood lassies, bronze hoopettes, brown femme casaba squads and, my favorite, African floor queens.

But despite the growing list of independent female all-black basketball squads, the Tribune Girls had no real rivals, so they looked to historically black colleges and universities for competition.

During the Great Depression, while most black colleges were discontinuing their women’s basketball programs in favor of “refinement and respectability,” Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, did the opposite. The school enthusiastically focused on basketball, recruiting top players nationwide to become the best African-American women’s collegiate team, and perhaps the best overall black female squad, in the country by the mid-1930s. Between 1933 and 1937, the Bennett Girls lost only one college game.

Naturally, folks had to know which of the two teams was better, so a showdown was scheduled in 1934: a weeklong, three-game series in Greensboro to decide the national black women’s basketball championship.

For their first game, the Tribune Girls showed up in new red-and-white uniforms with script “Tribune” lettering sewn onto sleeveless tops and matching socks. At halftime, they changed into fresh purple-and-gold outfits. Their hot new looks set the tone. Behind shooting that was described as “almost supernatural,” the Tribunes swept the series. “They just had it all together,” Bennett player Ruth Glover explained in a modern-day interview. “They could dribble and keep the ball and make fast moves in to the basket which you couldn’t stop.”

Washington’s ferocious intensity made her unstoppable. “I didn’t believe in long warm-ups,” she once told a reporter. “I’d rather play from scratch and warm up as I went along.” Despite her size, Washington was the core of the lineup. “The team was built up around her,” said Glover. “She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall,” the Bennett player recalled. “But she was fast.”

The Tribunes-Bennett series of 1934 was a turning point for women’s sports, as it ushered in a renewed interest in female intercollegiate athletic programs overall, beyond the African-American community and beyond basketball. During the 1937-38 season, the team reportedly traveled more than 5,000 miles to fill their schedule, which included a tour of Southern states.

Together with her tennis accolades, Washington’s presence on the sports stage shattered many previously existing notions about race and gender.

She almost single-handedly filled the two-decade void between the 1920s, when Lou Henry Hoover locked down female athletes, and the 1950s, when African-American tennis star Althea Gibson burst onto the national sports scene.

I mention Gibson, specifically, because in 1950 she became the first black player to compete in any United States Lawn Tennis Association event. A year later, she was the first African-American athlete invited to compete at Wimbledon.

Gibson won the French Open in 1956 and then won back-to-back titles at the US Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 before retiring from official competition. The Associated Press named her its Female Athlete of the Year for both of those seasons, signaling to the world that African-American women in sports could no longer be denied.

Where did Gibson grow up as a young tennis prodigy? Who was her tennis mentor? You guessed it — in Philadelphia under the watchful and protective wing of Washington. Washington not only trained her but also was her teammate in ATA doubles competitions during the late 1940s.

Gibson was followed by new women’s sports icons such as Wilma Rudolph and then, of course, many other female athletes, all who could trace their lineage back to Washington’s original superstardom. It would take another generation of achievement and breakthroughs before the advent of Title IX in 1972 allowed collegiate athletic scholarships for women.

Today, record numbers of female Olympians represent the United States; 292 competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, actually outnumbering men for the second Olympiad in a row, and 109 competed this year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Their athletic lineage can be traced back to Washington’s original pioneering efforts.

Unfortunately, Washington’s fame as an athlete did not last and she was mostly forgotten. After retiring from basketball and tennis in the late 1940s, there were few career options open to African-American women, so she made a living as a housekeeper. Sadly, her death in 1971 went virtually unnoticed.

However, in 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and in 2004 a historical marker commemorating Washington’s legacy was dedicated outside the original Germantown Colored YWCA building where she began her sports career.

Washington’s pioneering contributions to sports went far beyond basketball. Based on her hardwood achievements alone, she deserves enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.


There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

What does it mean to be black and play sports? It’s a question that demands you consider athletes in full, starting with their intellect

Two years ago, I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the main stage at the National Book Festival before an appreciative crowd in the nation’s capital. We were backstage waiting to go on, and Kareem, an introspective man not known for small talk, -surprised me by asking where I was from.

Reflexively, thinking he meant my professional home, I began to tell him what I did at The Undefeated and before that at The Washington Post. He cut me off.

“No, where are you from? Where are your people from?”

I explained my Wichita, Kansas, roots and my dad’s decision to move the family to Washington, D.C., during the early 1960s to pursue a career in geology. This piqued Kareem’s curiosity, as he understood the barriers countless African-Americans have faced in so many professions and how often sports and entertainment have defined our achievement.

Kareem is well-read, the author of 14 books and numerous insightful columns, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient whose interests range from World War II to the Harlem Renaissance. He is an exemplar of the most unexplored and underreported dimension of black athletes: their intellect.

Interviewing Kareem on The Daily Show recently, Trevor Noah remarked: “It’s almost like NBA all-time leading scorer is No. 6 on your résumé. You have lived quite an accomplished life.”

We are proud at The Undefeated to collaborate with ESPN The Magazine on this special issue, State of the Black Athlete, a glimpse into the creativity, struggles and brilliance of African-Americans in sports. We understand these athletes’ quest to be seen and comprehended beyond high-flying dunks and celebratory end zone dances, to have their minds considered fully.

Consider John Urschel, with expertise in spectral graph theory and high dimensional data compression, deciding to retire from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26 to complete his doctorate in math at MIT. Or Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who taught himself to play piano, learned the Arabic alphabet and quotes parables from David Foster Wallace to reference Martin Luther King Jr., as he recently did in an interview with Donald McRae of The Guardian. Look at Venus Williams, who hasn’t just won 49 singles titles but fought for pay equity in her sport, including lobbying the British Parliament for equal prize money for male and female players at Wimbledon.

We are witnessing an extraordinary period of activism in sports, one driven by black athletes, but we also are watching some of the greatest sports stars on the planet show off their most undervalued asset: their minds. They’re tackling public policy issues, trekking to Capitol Hill, producing documentaries and books, and otherwise engaging in thoughtful contemplation about how best to use their influence.

Sometimes size or height, athleticism, poverty or just the limitations of your dreams propel you into a life of sports. The thrill of competition enlivens you, the cred you generate in your community empowers you. Athletic success opens doors that never seem to close—and you become defined by your physical skills. The world engages you through highlights and sound bites, and your Twitter feed. The rest of your genius—your tastes, passions, eclectic interests—the world sometimes misses. Or, sadly, just ignores.

I love the photos that French-born basketball veteran Boris Diaw posted on Instagram from the Grand Canyon, with his personal espresso machine resting on rock, the sun rising across the darkened sky. The lives of today’s black athletes are filled with experiences hard to imagine when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming of age, or when Paul Robeson was excelling as an actor/singer/scholar/athlete/20th-century Renaissance man while being hounded by racism.

One of the most unheralded tales of black athletic triumph is the story of the 18 black Americans who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936, captured in Deborah Riley Draper’s brilliant documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Everyone has heard about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin during the height of Nazism. But there were 17 others on that team, including Ralph Metcalfe, who later was elected to Congress, and two women, sprinters Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.

Both black women also had made the 1932 U.S. Olympic team but were treated harshly by American teammates and never competed in the Los Angeles Games. They were replaced by whites on a relay team that won the gold—a rebuke that devastated them. Pickett went on to become an elementary school principal, and Stokes founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League—both saddened but unbeaten by the prejudice they encountered.

But what more could they have become?

I couldn’t help but think, as I was interviewing Kareem, that black athletes are having a great moment—on the rise in power, influence and confidence.

Had he been a foot shorter, Kareem says, he might have been a history teacher trying to figure out life after retirement. Instead, he has spent the three decades since he stopped dropping skyhooks on centers who couldn’t guard him crafting a vital second career: as an intellectual, an activist and an inspiring role model to black athletes interested in exploiting their brilliance. We’re all better off that Kareem grew that extra foot.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens bring classic tennis dressing to the US Open semifinals It’s a new and stylish day for these tennis queens in Queens, New York

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. And if you are Serena Williams, your absence from Grand Slam tournaments this year has been a godsend to other female tennis players. Serena’s high-profile pregnancy and birth of her daughter (on Sept. 1) has left a gaping hole in the women’s singles circuit, and several excellent players have stepped into her fashionable breach.

Two Americans, Serena’s older sister Venus and Sloane Stephens, will meet on the hard court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday. It’s the first time two African-American women who aren’t both named Williams will play each other in the Open semis. Another African-American player, Madison Keys, the 22-year-old No. 15 seed, will play CoCo Vandeweghe on Thursday.

The US Open semi matches give us a peek into the sporty style of three very different black female athletes, and Venus Williams, Stephens and Keys have stepped into the giant Serena vacuum, where their wholesome, classic tennis style will shine.

First, a bit about the legacy of the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena are important cultural icons who have inspired countless young girls to become hardcore athletes for more than 20 years. Serena, especially, is the winningest female tennis player of all time — and she has famously adopted a unique, take-no-prisoners approach to fashion and on-court athletic gear. Serena has never met a leatherette catsuit, gladiator-style tennis shoe or sequin-laden jumpsuit that she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear as she snatched a Grand Slam title from another player’s sweaty hands. Everything about the tennis legend has been analyzed, decoded, imitated and slut-shamed — yet Serena remains perhaps the most interesting athlete in the world.

Venus and Serena are famously fascinated by fashion, and each has launched successful clothing lines. But there is a distinct difference between the sisters. Where Serena can be flamboyant, Venus long ago adopted a more conservative style. If Serena is, was and always will be Compton, California (the Williams’ hometown), Venus is the country club pro in Wimbledon whites.

“People see Serena as being curiously provocative,” said celebrity stylist and former TV host Robert Verdi. “Everyone is fascinated by her body, the way she dresses, what’s going on in her personal life. She’s sexy and strong, and they see masculine notes in her muscular body. She’s just more. You don’t say that about Venus.”

Venus won this year’s US Open quarterfinals against Czech Petra Kvitová while wearing a short orange-and-gray tennis dress with a geographical print from the Epiphany collection of her tennis-friendly clothing line, EleVen by Venus Williams. Verdi noted that it was an unexpected intersection between fashion and sports.

“Venus dresses like any other player on the pro circuit,” he said. “Her little dresses are a part of the athleisure phenomenon. You could wear those little Venus dresses to pick up the kids from school, or wear one of those four-way stretch microfiber skirts to the office on a casual Friday. Women don’t dress like Serena for that.”

The unseeded Stephens, who advanced to the semis after beating 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, is an Under Armour-sponsored athlete who favors stylish, low-key tennis dresses with fitted waists in pale colors. (Similarly, Keys favors Nike tennis gear in bright colors and pulls her hair back into a no-nonsense bun or ponytail.) Stephens “clearly pays attention to fashion,” Verdi said. “You can definitely see that she’s having a conversation behind the scenes about body-conscious clothes.”

Speaking of hair, Venus and Stephens have both turned the lily-white ponytail aesthetic on its country club head while at the US Open. Venus wore her natural hair in a high, 1950s-era bun tucked under a visor; the look was gilded with cat-eye makeup and big gold hoop earrings. Stephens’ fishtail braid was pretty, but practical and serious. Again, the hairstyles have been several degrees shy of Serena’s tendency to go big, bigger and biggest on the brown girl aesthetic front.

The Venus vs. Sloane US Open moment may prove to be a memorable rivalry, but it’s Serena’s inevitable return to tennis that will likely unite them all.

“It almost feels like Venus and Sloane called each other and said, ‘Girl, it’s now or never,’ ” Verdi said. ” ‘We gotta take over now because once she gets back, she’s gonna have something to prove. That ball will be a bullet, and we’re all gonna be done.’ “

The Morning Roast: 7/17/17 Let’s talk about the Knicks, X Games, ‘The Bachelorette’ and contracts

Mina Kimes was back from assignment, Clinton Yates was back from the Midwest and Domonique Foxworth decided to go to McDonald’s for breakfast instead of the usual bagels and coffee. It was a great show.

Hour 1

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | Download | RSS | Embed

Mina managed to make it to the ESPY Awards, which apparently has a standby list that I didn’t know about until she brought it up. Alas, the person whose seat she took wasn’t a very memorable person, but being in the building is half the fun.

During the show, Roger Federer managed to win yet another Wimbledon men’s singles title, which means he broke a record. Clinton was way more interested in talking about the line judges and those cool outfits they get to wear. Speaking of outfits, the All-England Club ain’t playing when it comes to its all-white policy. Tournament officials straight-up made a team change their underwear, because God forbid anyone show any color whatsoever.

Of course, Carmelo Anthony is still looking to get out of New York, and this time the Houston Rockets look to be the landing spot. This somehow led to a conversation about the Knicks and Melo staying together to appease Kristaps Porzingis, whom you might recall bounced on the team before exit interviews at the end of last season. That led to a show-long thread of broken-home discussions, which, although painful for Clinton, at least provided good show content.

Since it’s summer, the NBA summer league is around, and more popular than ever. The gang discussed how the Ball family is handling the entire situation. More importantly, Clinton and Domonique unveiled their theory of how Lonzo is handling his shoe contract situation, which is very forward-thinking.

Hour 2

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | Download | RSS | Embed

Things got off to a hot start with Showtime’s Brian Custer, who discussed the latest in the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor boxing match, which has gotten ugly on the news conference front. He’s been at all of them, but the most fun part of the interview came when quite a few listeners thought Custer dropped an f-bomb on the air (he actually said the word “buck.”)

No one was more excited than Domonique and Mina to get back to football talk, sparked by the fact that Richard Sherman says players need to strike if they expect to make more money. With both of them being union experts, they broke down exactly why labor strife is not going to work out in the players’ favor when it comes to the NFL.

Clinton was back from Minnesota, where he was attending the X Games, so that’s where Top 5 went. If you’ve never been to one, you know that all sorts of people attend this event, so he looked back at who he ran into while he was at US Bank Stadium.

Hour 3

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | Download | RSS | Embed

As of this posting, Kirk Cousins still has not signed a contract with Washington’s NFL franchise. Which means that if he plays another season without reaching a long-term deal, the team will have to fork over huge cash if it’s looking to franchise-tag him a third time. Clearly, that situation is ridiculous, which gave Clinton, a fan of the team, an opportunity to literally yell and scream about it.

The Bachelorette is down to hometown visits, but first, Rachel had to cut a couple of people. Dean got the short end of the stick on the date front, but Bryan is out here copping Breitling watches with Rachel. Most importantly, Christian Yates is back from vacation in Uruguay and China, much to Domonique’s delight.

Finally, we unveiled a new bit called House on Fire, which Domonique created as a poll question. Basically, it’s the opposite of “1 Gotta Go,” and you have to pick one thing you’d save in a situation if your proverbial house were on fire. The best part of the bit came when one caller decided to blow up the whole construct of the game with a rather brilliant observation.

Enjoy!