Voices: Sorry, guys – women’s tennis is reclaiming the limelight at the US Open

Voices: Sorry, guys – women’s tennis is reclaiming the limelight at the US Open

For much of my life, the tennis fandom has represented a retreat from the ups and downs of life. Watching a little yellow ball zip relentlessly back and forth during late-night thrillers helped me to wind down after heckler-fuelled comedy nights or reset my tired brain when I was struggling over a book proposal.

The compelling storylines of underdogs battling to victory helped me to feel emboldened to put on my own armour and get back onstage or back to my desk, to make myself vulnerable one more time.

No storyline could be more inspiring than that of Serena Williams and her older sister Venus. The two girls from Compton fulfilled the confident claims that their father Richard had made right from their infancy, that they would become the best players in the world. Yet even Richard could never have predicted how long that dominance, particularly Serena’s, could last.

In New York on Monday night, with her young daughter, a host of celebrities and a record capacity crowd ecstatically cheering her on, the 40-year-old won the first match of her final tournament. Earlier this month, in a searingly honest Vogue article, she had announced her “evolution” away from tennis. To leave the sport she has so radically influenced, both by blazing a trail for younger athletes of colour and by altering the way that females can allow themselves to be authentic and look strong, powerful (and sometimes angry), causes her “a great deal of pain”.

It seems strange to think that, over the two decades or so during which Serena’s remarkable and dramatic career has played out, much of the tennis world has been consumed with wondering which man will win the most ever major singles titles and become the “greatest of all time” or simply “the GOAT”.

Would it be Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal – currently on 20, 21 and 22 titles each? Yet Serena has won more than any of them. She has 23. And perhaps she’s not quite done. The fans packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday would love to see her go on an unexpected dream run and reclaim the title that she first won in 1999. It certainly wouldn’t be any less improbable than what happened in the women’s tournament last year, a storyline I was lucky enough to have a personal connection to.

My wife Suzanne is a strength and conditioning coach for young tennis players, based at the Parklangley Club in Bromley. Once upon a time, this role intrigued me enough to click on her dating profile. On our first dates, she regaled me with backstage Wimbledon gossip and some names of talented teenagers that she had worked with. I probably didn’t pay quite enough attention when she first mentioned Emma Raducanu. Suzanne trained her from the ages of seven to 11 and had kept an eye on her junior career since.

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Then last year, Emma announced herself on the professional tour. After an impressive run to the fourth round at Wimbledon, she entered the US Open and became the first-ever qualifier to win a major title. It was a completely unprecedented and mind-boggling achievement. Suzanne and I were among the crowd that gathered around the TV screens to watch the final at the Parklangley Club, Emma’s first tennis home. We could not believe what we were seeing as she hit an ace out wide on match point to beat fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez in two straight sets.

Emma now has a huge amount of pressure on her shoulders in 2022. She has a tricky opening round coming up against wily and experienced French player Alize Cornet. Yet she has so many years ahead of her. Even if she can’t defend her title and her ranking drops after this tournament, she will be a name to look out for a long time.

Others to make a note to watch this fortnight include world number one Iga Swiatek and 18-year-old Coco Gauff, who, like many, cites Serena as a huge inspiration.

As one landmark career in women’s tennis ends, many other exciting journeys are just getting going.

Rosie Wilby is a comedian, author, podcaster and tennis fan