(Reuters) - Former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens believes the current cohort of young Black women at the top of the game bodes well for the future of African-American involvement in tennis.
Stephens beat Olga Govortsova on Thursday to reach the third round at Flushing Meadows, where she will play compatriot and 23-times Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.
The days when Williams and her sister Venus were the exception as women of colour playing at Grand Slams are long gone and Stephens thinks that will only inspire more Black girls to give the sport a go.
"I think it's awesome," Stephens told reporters. "Right now ... leading our sport on the women's side is African-American women, which is amazing."
"From Naomi (Osaka) to Coco (Gauff), Venus (Williams), Serena (Williams), Maddie (Madison Keys), myself, and then the younger girls coming up.
"I think there is an amazing opportunity to get more women of colour in this sport. Because you can see now there are so many amazing players playing ... and obviously tennis is giving us so much in our lives."
Stephens, who won the U.S. Open title in 2017, was wearing a face mask with the words "No Justice/No Peace" emblazoned on it to draw attention to racial injustice in the United States.
Her mask had echoes of the statement Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father who grew up mostly in the United States, is making with her protective gear at Flushing Meadows this year.
The 2018 champion is wearing a different face mask for each of her matches featuring the name of a Black American in an attempt to bring the issue of racial injustice to a wider audience. [nL4N2FZ4C2]
Frances Tiafoe, the Black American world number 82 who earned his own spot in the third round on Thursday, has been impressed by the campaign.
"Naomi, that's my guy... She's special on and off court, what she stands for. I have been a fan ever since she popped off in the Open here a couple years ago," Tiafoe said.
"Always nice and quiet. But to see her use her platforms and go crazy, it's special. You tip your hat off to that."
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Christopher Cushing)