In Serena Williams, A Generation Of Black Players Saw A Legend "Who Looked Like Me" : Consider This from NPR Serena Williams dominated tennis for the better part of two decades. Her athleticism and aggressive style changed the way the women's game is played. And she inspired a generation of young Black players who followed in her footsteps.

Coco Gauff was one of them. At 18 years old, she was born five years after Williams' first Grand Slam singles title. Today, she's ranked 12th in the WTA rankings.

"Growing up, I never thought I was different," she said, "because the number one player in the world was somebody who looked like me."

As Williams plays in what may be the final matches of her career, in the U.S. Open, Chanda Rubin of Tennis Channel reflects on Williams' career and her legacy.

This episode also features reporting on the Williams family's time in Compton, California, from NPR's Danny Hajek.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

In Serena Williams, A Generation Of Black Players Saw A Legend "Who Looked Like Me"

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yes, Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles - more than anyone else in the Open era. Yes, she has utterly dominated tennis for most of her two-decade career. But to measure her full impact on the sport, you got to go to places like the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center in Washington's Concourse Heights neighborhood.

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KELLY: In 2007, our colleague Michel Martin met two of the center's players, another pair of sisters - 13- and 12-year-olds, Sarah and Elizabeth Means.

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MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Let me ask you a hard question, and I hope it's - it, you know, doesn't hurt your feelings. But sometimes when kids play a sport that a lot of other Black kids don't play or people of their own, you know, group or whatever - sometimes people have things to say. You know, they say, oh, you think you're white or anything like that. And I just wondered, has that ever happened to you?

SARAH MEANS: We've heard it before, but you don't listen to it. And that's what Venus and Serena teach us, that - not to listen to what negative things people have to say because we have talent, and we know we're good. So we can go to the top as high as we want to go because we're focused.

MARTIN: Elizabeth, what about you?

ELIZABETH MEANS: No, nobody has really ever said anything to me. But even if they had before, I mean, I wouldn't really listen to it 'cause I know I have game, and me and my sisters do have game and that no matter what they say, they can't bring us down by their words.

KELLY: Sarah and Elizabeth met Venus and Serena in person at the center. They played doubles, sisters on sisters. Well, they stuck with tennis. Both had standout college careers at Florida Gulf Coast University. They played in international professional tournaments. And this week, as Serena Williams plays her final professional matches, 29-year-old Sarah Means is thinking about what Williams meant to her.

SARAH MEANS: They've inspired, honestly, a generation because we saw someone who looked like us, who encouraged us when we met them. So it's been really cool.

KELLY: Serena Williams had that same effect on another young, Black tennis player - Coco Gauff.

COCO GAUFF: Growing up, I never thought that I was different because, you know, the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me, so...

KELLY: Today, Gauff is one of the best players in the game, playing in the U.S. Open that will likely be Williams' last tournament. At a press conference before the first round, Gauff said she is still learning from Williams.

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GAUFF: A lot of times, being a woman in the world - a Black woman in the world, you kind of settle for less. And I feel like Serena just taught me that from watching her. She never settled for less. I don't - I can't think of a moment in her career, in her life that she settled for less.

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KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - Serena Williams changed the way women's tennis is played. She paved the way for the players who followed. Before she steps off stage, she's going for one more Grand Slam title.

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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Tuesday, August 30.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The story of the Williams sisters starts in Compton, Calif., on neighborhood tennis courts peppered with cracks and weeds and broken glass.

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KELLY: On those courts for hour after hour are two standout, young players and a father, Richard, who is convinced they are destined for greatness.

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ANDRE BARBEE: Man, it was unbelievable. I never seen nobody that good. It was something I've never seen before in my life.

KELLY: Andre Barbee was 21 years old, a limo driver and part-time coach when Richard Williams asked him to train with Serena and Venus. When he talked to NPR in 2015, he remembered how even before the girls were teenagers, they were hitting balls hard enough to break racquet strings.

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BARBEE: Every other day, I was restringing my rackets, my shoes once a week - a hole right in my foot of my shoe, used to tape them up.

KELLY: Eventually, the family moved to Florida. Venus and Serena continued to excel. Richard limited their time on the junior circuit. He wanted them to focus on their education. He worried about burnout and injuries. The wait paid off. At 17 years old, Serena won her first Grand Slam singles title.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: It is my great pleasure to present to you the 1999 U.S. Open women's singles trophy to Serena Williams.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: For the next two years, the Williams sisters virtually owned the court. And though Serena was the first to a Grand Slam singles title, Venus won most of their early head-to-head matches. When Serena beat her in a tournament in Miami in 2002, she seemed stunned.

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SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, I can't believe I finally beat her to be - I just - I can't. I'm, like, in shock. This is the most shock I've ever been over any win I've ever had. I just - she's the best player out there, and I just can't believe I won.

KELLY: Eventually, though, it was Serena who dominated tennis for the better part of two decades - 319 weeks on top of the world tennis rankings, two separate Serena slams where she won four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and an athleticism and aggressive style of play that redefined the women's game.

Earlier this month, Serena Williams announced she would hang up her racket, evolve away from tennis, as she put it, implied the U.S. Open would be her last tournament, which meant when she took the court on Monday night...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: The greatest of all time - Serena Williams.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: ...It could have been her last match.

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WILLIAMS: I was just thinking, like, is this for real, really? And at the same time, I'm also thinking, you know, I still have a match to play, and I want to be able to play up to this reception.

KELLY: She did play up, winning in straight sets with some of her best tennis in months. So for now, Williams' farewell tour continues. And to take stock of the legacy she's built, I talked to Chanda Rubin. She's a former world top 10 player and a commentator for Tennis Channel. Her career overlapped with Williams'.

So you were a member of a very small club, the club of people who have played Serena Williams and beat her. What is it like staring across the net, waiting to return that serve?

CHANDA RUBIN: It can be a bit intimidating simply because, you know, as a player, you know that she has one of the best serves, if not the best serve, in the history of the women's game.

KELLY: Yeah.

RUBIN: And it's a formidable weapon. She can hit it to each spot in the court - in the service box. So you don't often see it coming. You can't really predict, so it puts more pressure on your serve. So there's a lot of different things that come into play when you're facing Serena Williams.

KELLY: I was going back and reading about that match, and I think the detail I loved the most was something that she told you after you won.

RUBIN: Yes. I played her in a tournament in Los Angeles, and I was able to win that match in a tiebreak in the third set. That's, like, the closest a match can really be. And at the end of that match, you know, she was so kind to warm me up the next day. And, just to give you a little reference, that never happens. If you beat a player or, you know, you play somebody, the next day, they don't want to have anything to do with you. And so she was kind enough to warm me up, and after that, she told me, now go win the tournament. And I said, OK, you know what? I think I should. And of course, I did.

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RUBIN: You know, when you beat Serena, you feel like, OK, I'm playing pretty well, and I can handle anybody else across the net.

KELLY: I mean, we talked about her serve. We talked about what it's like to beat her, you know, at least once. What do you think, though, made her so dominant for so many years? 'Cause she wasn't just great that year or the year after or the year after. She's been great for, like, a long time.

RUBIN: Decades - it's incredible to even think about it. And, you know, what I think sets her apart is, you know, the physical skills that she has. You know, she's powerful from the ground. She can go toe-to-toe with anybody and outhit most players, if not every player at any given point, and so you're dealing with that factor as well. How do you catch up to her shots? How do you try to read and get a jump on things?

But I think what has allowed Serena to dominate is the strength of will that she has. It is the ability to get into a pivotal moment in a match and raise her level to just immerse herself in the competition at hand, to not shy away from that. And I think over the course of a match, a lot of players, they can't match that.

KELLY: In a part of her legacy, obviously, and of her sister Venus' too, is that these were two Black women who spent part of their childhood in Compton dominating a sport that had been seen for so long as white, as elitist. You know, you came up as another Black female player a few years ahead of them, so you've walked that walk. I wonder, how much does it feel like they've changed the sport?

RUBIN: I think they've changed the sport tremendously. You know, first and foremost, their story is one that is incredibly special. And I don't think we'll see that again in sport. It's not easy to win tournaments out here week in and week out - to have that kind of consistency. And they were able to do it. Then you throw into the fact that they were so dynamic as players. You look at, you know, their games and how much fun it was to watch them. You know, they were aggressive. They were attacking players. They showed emotion, Serena in particular. Venus was a bit quieter, but even that contrast made it interesting.

And then they're going up against each other. I mean, now you're getting all these eyes on the sport and the fact that they are two Black women at that point and minorities in a predominately white sport, it just brought so much interest. And you have now a whole new demographic of, you know, kids and players who can relate and who are interested in the sport.

KELLY: So you - again, you've walked this walk - to play at such a high level and then to figure out when it's time to leave the game. And I just wonder, any advice as she's heading into this next chapter of her life?

RUBIN: It's hard to think of, you know, any advice that, you know, I could give to Serena at this stage. You know, so much of what she's doing is uncharted territory because of who she is. I do think the transition out of the game and into the next phase of her life - I think that can be tricky, and I think it, you know, will be interesting to see how she approaches it, having more freedom, not having as much time taken up with practicing and training. And I would just encourage her to embrace it all.

KELLY: She is now one Grand Slam title away from tying the all-time record. How do you rate her chances of one more U.S. Open trophy?

RUBIN: Well, first and foremost, I have and will go on record saying I don't think Serena needs to win another major. Getting through this first round, that's a huge milestone. You know, the first rounds of any big tournament, let alone a Grand Slam, are always tricky. And I think for Serena - when she gets going, you've got to like her chances. And how incredible would it be if she were able, at the end of this year's U.S. Open, to be holding the trophy? There's still a ways to go, but it's going to be fun watching the ride.

KELLY: Chanda Rubin of Tennis Channel.

And before we go, one caveat to all this past-tense talk of legacy. After Monday's win, Serena was asked by a reporter - is this really your last tournament?

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WILLIAMS: Yeah, I've been pretty vague about it, right? Yeah, I'm going to stay vague because you never know.

KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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