US Open: Serena Williams' 1999 triumph - Bill Clinton, Althea Gibson and the sinking of the Swiss Miss

By Sports Desk September 11, 2020

Serena Williams had been hunting down US Open glory this fortnight with the same hunger she showed when winning a first grand slam singles title at Flushing Meadows 21 years ago.

It was September 11, 1999, when a 17-year-old Williams proved the theory she was destined for greatness, seeing off Martina Hingis at Flushing Meadows to cap a spectacular run through the draw.

Big sister Venus had been expected to land a singles slam first, being 15 months Serena's senior and ranked higher. Venus' time would come, but it was the younger sibling who triumphed that time in New York.

There will be no record-equalling 24th major at the same site this year following a semi-final loss to Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, though.

But, with the help of Opta, we look back at how Serena got started at her home slam.

SHOULD IT HAVE COME AS ANY SURPRISE?

The Williams sisters had been spoken about long before they took their first steps on the WTA Tour, with their talents having been nurtured from an early age by father and coach Richard. He and they eschewed the typical pathway through the junior ranks, after a rush of early age-group success, focusing instead on moving into the professional game, fighting racial prejudice along the way.

In November 1997, Serena announced her arrival when, just turned 16, she beat Mary Pierce and Monica Seles at an event in Scottsdale, before reaching the semi-finals in Sydney at the start of the 1998 season.

Unseeded, she won an indoor title in Paris early in 1999 by beating local hero Amelie Mauresmo in the final after seeing off three previous French opponents. A fortnight later, she overcame Steffi Graf to triumph at Indian Wells. With Venus, she then won the French Open doubles, a first taste of grand slam glory.

Serena missed Wimbledon through injury but any doubts over her fitness were banished by victory at a Los Angeles tournament a week before the US Open, where she beat world number one Hingis for the second time.

That week is perhaps best remembered for Graf, fed up of battling injury, announcing her retirement. As one queen of the courts departed, another was continuing quite the sublime entrance.

MAKING IT BIG, MAKING HISTORY

The seismic moment the tennis world had been waiting for arrived earlier than many imagined, even if teenage players winning majors was nothing new.

Hingis won three slams as a 16-year-old in 1997, adding two more at the 1998 and 1999 Australian Opens, and the likes of Graf, Chris Evert and Seles were all in their teens when they made major title breakthroughs in the women's game.

Serena's win stood out for many reasons, not least that it made her the first African-American woman to win a grand slam singles title in the Open Era. The great Althea Gibson won five singles slams in the 1950s, during tennis' amateur age, but another such triumph had been a long time coming.

Serena would not rise to number one in the world until July 2002, but that first major would be followed by many more, and heading to New York this year she had 23 singles slams - an Open Era record (ahead of Graf - 22, Evert - 18, Martina Navratilova - 18) and just one short of the all-time best achieved by Court.

One women's record Serena owns outright is the number of grand slam titles on hard courts, as nobody matches her 13 successes.

TAKING THE HARDEST ROUTE

What was most remarkable about Serena's 1999 run to the title was the calibre of the opposition she fended off.

A 6-1 6-0 annihilation of Kimberly Po in round one was followed by a straight-sets win over Jelena Kostanic, but the real tests were to come.

Williams was pushed hard by 16-year-old Kim Clijsters in round three, taking a decider 7-5 against the future three-time US Open champion, before picking off grand slam winners Conchita Martinez, Seles and defending title-holder Lindsay Davenport en route to the final, each match going to three sets.

Hingis, by contrast, had only dropped one set all tournament, and that came against Venus in their semi-final battle.

After scuppering the hopes of Martinez, Seles and Davenport, Hingis was a fourth successive seeded opponent for Serena, who triumphed 6-3 7-6 (7-4) against the 18-year-old Swiss.

Hingis, once seen as the likely successor to Graf as a long-time standard setter, would never win another singles slam.

WHAT DID IT MEAN?

For Serena, for the Williams sisters, for tennis, the final grand slam tournament of the 1990s had seen a moment of monumental significance.

United States president Bill Clinton called to offer his congratulations minutes after the women's final ended, and the young Serena acknowledged the symbolism of the success, the possibilities it could open up.

At her post-match news conference, she spoke of Gibson's legacy, saying: "One of her best friends told me she wanted to see another African-American win a slam before her time is up.

"I'm so excited I had a chance to accomplish that while she's still alive. It's just really great."

Gibson died in late September 2003, by which time Serena had six singles slams. Even then, Serena was only getting started.

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