Liguori: Gibson Statue Unveiling, Start Of Serena's Pursuit Of Record Important Milestones For US Open


On a glorious day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center when the USTA unveiled an 18-ton granite statue of Althea Gibson, whom King called "the Jackie Robinson of tennis" for breaking through the sport's color barrier, the African-American athlete who has dominated the women’s game for nearly two decades began her quest for her 24th Grand Slam title.

Serena Williams commanded the spotlight Monday evening with her dominant performance against five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-1. It was the 20th time in the 22 matches they’ve played each other that Serena beat Sharapova. Ironically, it was the first time they’ve met at the U.S. Open.

Serena served five aces with four service winners and hit 16 winners, while Sharapova made 20 unforced errors. The soon-to-turn 38-year-old Williams remained calm and kept her emotions intact. She served 115-mph missiles and was able to win five of six break points. It was a very solid match for Serena and a great start to her campaign to win her 24th major title, which would tie Margaret Court’s long-standing record of most Grand Slam singles titles by a female.

Serena Williams hits a forehand against Maria Sharapova on Aug. 26, 2019, at the U.S. Open. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Images

Althea Gibson statueAnn Liguori/WFAN
Gibson was the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title. She won 11 Grand Slam championships overall, and she was the first black player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. One of the dozens of milestones in Serena’s career includes being ranked No. 1 on eight separate occasions from 2002 and 2017. On the sixth time she held the top ranking, she stayed there for 186 straight weeks, tying the record set by Steffi Graf. Overall, Serena has been No. 1 for 319 weeks, which ranks third in the Open Era among female players behind Graf and Martina Navratilova. Currently, Williams is ranked No. 8 in the world. She has only played 25 matches this season. Her first of six U.S. Open titles came two decades ago in 1999. Serena’s last major championship came at the Australian Open in 2017.

When asked about what message the Gibson statue conveys, Serena replied: “I think it sends a great message to me in particular, knowing her story, knowing Althea, what she went through, being truly the first pioneer, an African-American in tennis, to a sport that wasn’t open to black people. For her to now have a statue, all the things she’s done for people like me, people that look like me, to be in the sport now, it’s just astonishing.”

Asked if she could have imagined what Gibson must have gone through in the 1950s, Williams said, “Well, no, I can’t. It’s a different age and a different time. I read her book. I read her having to sleep in cars because they wouldn’t allow her to be in the hotels. Even finding doubles partners was difficult for her. It’s just different times. It’s obviously hard to imagine being in that position. But it’s also really important to be thankful and to know what she went through, to understand that’s why that statue is so important so others that are younger know what she went through.

"No matter what color you are, you can definitely learn a lot about her story, the opportunities that she helped bring to tennis.”

It was a great opening day at the U.S. Open. A great day to remind everyone about the importance of inclusion. A great day to recognize an athlete who deserves so much respect and admiration for breaking through and overcoming tremendous hardships. And a great day for young and old to appreciate the sport’s history and yet how far we still have to go in terms of race relations and equality for men and women.

Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori.​