Tucker Toole, Sports Editor
Tennis was instilled in my blood before my parents and grandparents were born. My great grandfather, Henry A. Isaacs, was a founder of the first black tennis club in Chicago in 1912, which is now the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club. My mother’s parents met on a blind tennis date. Growing up in Chicago, my younger brother and I would play tirelessly on the courts as kids.
This month I was thrilled to attend the 50th US Open, which is also the 50th anniversary of the great Arthur Ashe becoming the only black male to win the US Open in 1968. Ashe used his platform to stand up for what he believed in, which is something the US Open stands for as well. Other players have used their platform, like Billie Jean King, who recently stood up for Serena Williams after her “catsuit” was banned from the French Open by Bernard Guidicelli, head of the French Tennis Federation.
Match at the 50th US Open. // Photo by Tucker Toole.
Both of my parents played tennis in college; my mother played at Texas Southern University, and my father played at Hampton. Back in Chicago, my mother and her high school played against Katrina Adams, who is now the president and CEO of the United States Tennis Association. My uncle played at Texas Southern as well, and later became a collegiate head coach whose teams won multiple SWAC championships at Prairie View A&M University. So tennis has been a major part of my upbringing.
I remember watching the Grand Slams – the Australian, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open – on TV with my family. The US Open was one of my favorites because I watched stars like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, and Serena and Venus Williams. The matches that always got my attention were the big battles between Federer and Nadal.
So imagine how excited I was when I first walked into the gates of the tennis complex, and there was Nadal standing 20 feet away from me. It was a cool moment, and then I was welcomed with open arms by the US Open communications staff. The facilities are exceptional on the grounds: the beautiful Arthur Ashe Stadium, the newly renovated Louis Armstrong Stadium that now has a retractable roof, along with the newly renovated Grandstand.
I was in awe of the campus and seeing it in person, seeing the fans, and seeing the diversity that a major international sporting event like this brings.
The first match of the day was No. 3 Sloane Stephens, who won the Open last year, and has been one of the best female players on the tour over the last few years. She faced off against No.79 Victoria Azarenka, who has won two Australian opens and was ranked No. 1 at one point in her career.
Stephens defeated her 6-3, 6-4 and was asked after the match about her recent success when facing Azarenka:
“I think the first couple of times I played her, I was just like the young gun, just happy to be on the court with someone who’s ranked No.1 in the world and had won a Grand Slam already. I think the tables turned… now I’m in a position where I fully believe I can win the match, and I go out there ready to execute and ready to play.”
Stephens is such a great defensive player and returner, she always maintains a low base and that’s how she managed to beat Azarenka in the match.
The second match that took place was No. 1 ranked and one of the greatest men’s players in the history of the sport,Nadal, versus No. 27 Karen Khachanov. Nadal won in four sets in a grind-out four hour and 23-minute match.
Tucker Toole holds his US Open Press Pass. // Courtesy photo from Tucker Toole.
It was a flashback to those great Nadal-Federer matches I watched when I was a kid. Seeing Nadal in person gave me an even greater appreciation for the tremendous athlete that he is.
I was able to watch other matches at the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium, catching No. 25 Milos Raonic vs. Stan Wawrinka and No. 9 Dominic Thiem against the American Taylor Fritz, who had the crowd on his side during the match.
I was in for a surprise for the third match where the Williams sisters faced off against each other. When I caught one of their matches on television I would feel lucky, but the opportunity to see two of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time in person felt like a dream.
Serena Williams answers questions in a post-match interview. // Photo by Tucker Toole.
Seeing Venus and Serena go back and forth, Serena plays with so much power but with so much grace and strategy. Seeing Venus hit tough shots on the line against her sister and not give up easily showed her persistence. Serena won the sibling rivalry in straight sets 6-1, 6-2. After the match, Venus said she thought it was the best match her sister ever played against her and Serena responded:
“I don’t know. I think it’s by far the best match I ever played against her in forever. But I don’t know about ever. It probably was. I played much better tonight than I have since I started this journey on my way back.”
Just being able to witness arguably the greatest tennis player ever and watching her come back and play at that level after giving birth was amazing.
Also watching the Williams sisters were Colin Kaepernick, who has been exiled from the NFL for standing up for social justice after kneeling during the national anthem. With him was Eric Reid, his former teammate who kneeled alongside him.
The experience of being at a sporting event like the US Open witnessing great players that I had grown up watching was like no other. It also gave me a greater appreciation for my great grandfather, who provided an opportunity for black people to play tennis in Chicago 106 years ago.