All posts by garadf

sloane & serena

Sloane Stephens Sets Up Serena Clash; Madison Keys Emerging as Threat

Madison Keys

Madison Keys

*Now that all the fanfare has died down surrounding Serena Williams’ return to Indian Wells, the tournament must go on.

Outside of Williams, America has been hard pressed to produce top performers in either the WTA or the ATP fields unlike the days of old when the U.S. used to dominate in both. There have been hopefuls aplenty over the past couple of years, but very few have been able to fulfill the dreams the USTA has for them. One who is consistently climbing the ranks – on the WTA side – and has the best chance at torch bearing once Serena – who stands alone in success at representing the country – and her sister retire is Madison Keys. She has the weapons to do it and is currently the third highest ranked American woman behind the sisters.

Keys, an Illinois native, turned pro back in 2009, and has – quietly at first but now with some media attention – made a steady climb up the WTA rankings using her monstrous serve and thunderous ground strokes to do so. In fact, her power in both those areas recently knocked her inspiration, Venus Williams, out of the Australian Open and found Serena Williams nearly knocked off her feet in the following semifinal round – and it was those two who brought that element to women’s tennis in the first place. Keys ultimately lost the match – as most do to “SW-19,” but she officially announced her arrival as a “force” in the process.

Now residing in Boca Raton, Florida, Madison leads the pack in several emerging faces of color on the WTA. She started out with that aforementioned raw power, which won her many matches, but her decision making wasn’t always sound. But to address that issue and sharpen her game, she made one decision that was most certainly sound: she hired 3-time Slam champion Lindsay Davenport to be her “super coach.” Davenport is also American, has an even temperament and had a game very similar to Keys’ when she was on tour. Since being under Davenport’s tutelage, there has been an obvious spike in the blank year old’s ranking and results.

“Obviously, what we did in the offseason and practice and things like that helped me get to the semis … ” she said of Davenport’s contribution.

Though decidedly “up next,” Keys isn’t as fierce a competitor as her top-ranked compatriot, Williams; her equal or better power, however, well positions her to make a run at someday reaching the No. 1 spot in the rankings. And if she does make it, we would have to expect it to be on a different order than the way Serena did it anyway, because the fire that tested and proved Williams is simply not around anymore. There is no controversy of the magnitude that the Williams sisters (and their AA forerunners) experienced to generate their degree of determination – and ferocity as it relates to Serena. Thusly, Madison, more of the affable ilk, will likely get there on game alone.

Keys has reached the third round at Indian Wells and will have to take out former world No. 1 and IW champion, Jelena Jankovic, to advance beyond that point. She’s beaten the Serbian once and with the increased confidence and momentum from her Australian Open performance, she stands a good chance of taking her out again.

Donald Young, another American of color, was once on the path to pro level greatness, but he never found his rhythm as a consistent challenger after dominating in the juniors. He’s had some big wins, including over Andy Murray, but the huge gaps in between such wins have found the American frustrated and ranked lower than his potential would’ve indicated (current No. 47 with 38 being his highest). But at Indian Wells, which ironically is where he beat The Scott some years ago, he seems to string wins over higher ranked opponents together. On Sunday, he solidly took out No. 31, Jeremy Chardy, in the 2nd round, setting up a clash with top-ranked Spaniard Rafael Nadal.

“It’s a big win for me,” he said. “I like it. The weather is great. The way the ball flies through the air and comes off the court. Topspin, it takes well on this court and makes my serve a little normal. All those things combined … Puts you in a good atmosphere.”

When asked about facing Nadal he said:

“If I play Rafa, I’m not going to be the guy favored to win so I can swing free. I don’t have any points to defend, so it’s just free swinging from here out for me.”

Taylor Townsend, also an American (from Chicago) to watch, has some justified buzz behind her, but she has a ways to go. She had a big first round win over fellow American, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but met with former U.S. open champion and veteran, Samantha Stosur, in round 2 and went down in flames. She deserves a bookmark in her story, however, because as a once dominant juniors player herself, her momentum is in the positive direction and she has weaponry to build upon. Townsend is also being trained by a super coach, Zina Garrison, a former U.S. Fed Cup coach and Wimbledon finalist.

sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens

Next up is Sloane Stephens,  who’s been more of a cautionary tale on the WTA after knocking Serena Willams out of the 2013 Australian Open. She experienced too much too fast, in the way of results and media attention, and allowed it to torpedo her game and drive. Since then, she’s been struggling to maintain her ranking, with only flashes of the “next big thing in U.S. Tennis” play that took her deep into every major that season.

But there’s something about that California desert air that turns the tides for USTA players.

As it was with the usually struggling Donald Young (and American Jack Sock who took out Croat Ivo Karlovic), Stephens found her footing in the desert and upended veteran and 2-time Slam champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. She had already sent Chanelle Scheepers and Angelique Kerber home. It took three up and down sets to achieve the defeat Kuznetsova, but as the match wore on, Sloane’s confidence grew. She started out constantly seeking approval from her box (coach Nick Saviano and mom Stephens), but by the final point, she was full throttle on her own with her speed, agility and that booming forehand she was known for.

The win booked her a spot in the round of 16 against tournament darling and world No. 1, Serena Williams, who beat Zarina Diyas earlier in the day, 6-2, 6-0.

Regardless of Sloane’s sketchy results for the season, it’s one of those match ups that tennis fans and prognosticators salivate for. Serena tends to bring out the best in those with the weapons to hang with her but not the guile:

“Everyone brings their “A” game when they play me,” Serena said when she lost early at Wimbledon in 2014.

And no less should be expected of Sloane. Besides, she has beaten an injured Serena before. And further, with it not being a Slam and with Serena having no points to defend at IW, the 19-time Slam champion may not fully engage. OR, known to have a very long memory of defeats, there being so relative few, Serena may come out as the ferocious fighter with her notorious “chip” on her shoulder and take Stephens to the woodshed. Whichever case, this will be one of the matches to watch.

“I mean, it’s always an honor to play the No. 1 player in the world,” Sloane said of the pending match. “Obviously someone of her stature who has won so many titles and the great player she is, I just have to go out there and play my game and do all I can and just compete.”

2013 Australian Open Highlights:

There will be no love lost between the former “friends.”

“She’s a competitor; she’s the No. 1 player in the world. She’s what — what do you call it? She’s a — you know when you work with someone? [a colleague],” Sloane said.

It’s hot in the desert, but that and these forthcoming match ups will make it even hotter:

Madison Keys and Jelena Jankovic (3rd round)
Donald Young and Raphael Nadal ( 3rd round)
Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka (3rd round)
John Isner and Kevin Anderson (3rd round)
Bernard Tomic and David Ferrer (3rd round)
Andy Murray and Phillip Kohlschreiber (3rd round)
Steve Johnson and Tomas Berdych (3rd round)
Roger Federer and Andreas Seppi (3rd round)

Check your local listings.

serena emotional (indian wells)

An Emotional Serena Williams Wins Indian Wells Return Match

serena williams-with-racket

*Serena Williams, ironically, didn’t have to commute far to face the well-documented ghosts that had haunted her for the last 13 years. She has a home in Beverly Hills, California, so with just a hop and a skip, she was there, in the California desert, where she was met with a level of disrespect all those years ago that has likely fueled her fire in winning 18 more Grand Slam (GS) titles since then.

Serena had already won the U.S. Open before the Indian Wells (IW) controversy, but who’s to say she wouldn’t have been “one and done” like some who started out with her or came before her and retired during her tenure with just one Slam. And with that U.S. Open win occurring on home soil setting the stage for expectations, there was likely a sense of home-country pride that was shattered when what should’ve been patriotic support (faced Belgian Kim Clijsters in the 2001 IW final) turned to utterly embarrassing rejection. A stretch, but it could’ve derailed her entire career if processed the wrong way.

But with the benefit of hindsight, the youngest Williams sister had in her belly a fire waiting to be ignited to greatness. Richard Williams saw it before she was even introduced to the professional tennis world, but it was on full display for the world to see when she beat the odds and was declared the 2001 IW winner – whether loved or hated.

“Serena reminds me of a pit bull dog and a young Mike Tyson, all in one,” Richard said of what he saw in his daughter.

It must’ve taken intestinal fortitude that not many possess just to continue on with the match under the weight of what likely felt like crippling betrayal, but to WIN in the face of it had to come from the very depths of her burgeoning greatness. When she raised her fists in defiant celebration that day, it was a glimpse of the makings of one of, if not THE best women’s tennis players of all time. There are other multiple slams winners on tour, but none, not even runner-ups, the steely Maria Sharapova (5) and her legend-in-her-own-right sister Venus Williams (7) has one that burns more white-hot.

Serena went on to fully manifest what her father knew and what the world got a peek at that fateful day … and she’s still going.

Once her return to IW was confirmed, she said in an interview that she “wasn’t returning as the young girl with fragile emotions.”

But she did acknowledge that the attention her decision had brought left her understandably a touch unnerved.

“I think there will be added nerves,” she said. “I would really not be telling the truth if I said there wasn’t.”

But never one to be beset by challenges, she showed up, just as she said she would – with her slightly different team and the gravity of those 18 more GS trophies in tow.

“I didn’t write the story this way. I did not plan to be dominant and playing well or No. 1, if you say, 14 years later. … I think it was just an extra bonus and an extra treat that it turned out that way,” she said.

It wasn’t the same IW as it was in 2001. The grounds have changed, the policies and staff have changed, but most importantly the spirit of the crowd has changed. The stadium was full with a record breaking 19,198 attendees, the media were salivating, and personalities that normally wouldn’t rear their heads until the tournament’s business end were there to embrace the forgiving star as she played her first match, including former Microsoft co-founder and CEO, Bill Gates, and fellow billionaire and former Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison.

“It was a bit overwhelming,” she said of the tear-inducing reception. “I didn’t know what to expect … it was such a warm feeling. It made me feel incredibly well.”

It didn’t really matter who she was playing, although the much lower ranked, yet crafty Romanian, Monica Niculescu, was able to capitalize on the nerves of the occasion, making the match competitive. That aside, it was the anticipation of her “Martin Luther King moment” return that made the mere 2nd round match feel much bigger.

“It definitely feels like one of the biggest moments and the proudest moments of my career,” she said.

When she emerged from the tunnel as her name was called, she was met with raucous cheers and welcome back chants from the crowd. The warm welcome drew a big smile that very quickly turned to tears. It was indicative of the brave leap the superstar took in stepping back onto Court 1 after all those years.

But she came and she conquered – both her ghosts and Niculescu, 7-5, 7-5.

“Today was a wonderful day for me, for women’s tennis, for tennis in general and for everyone,” she gushed.

For a celebrated athlete who has nearly done it all in the sport (only missing the calendar Slam), it was only fitting that her twilight years include an homage to – and I’m taking some liberties here – the spark that ignited what seems to be an everlasting fire in her belly unto becoming a WTA legend.

“Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.” – Charles “Tremendous” Jones

serenaberleioz20141

Serena Williams Ends Indian Wells Boycott

Serena Williams of USA talks to the media during previews for the WTA Finals at the ArtScience Museum on October 19, 2014 in Singapore

Serena Williams of USA talks to the media during previews for the WTA Finals at the ArtScience Museum on October 19, 2014 in Singapore

*It’s the end of an era … or an error thought to be made by tennis fans in Indian Wells, California.  After 13 years of boycotting the BNP Paribas tournament held there at the Tennis Gardens due to what she, her sister and the rest of her family deemed to be overt racism, Serena Williams has decided to at last return to compete.

The story goes: Both sisters advanced to semifinal round, which would’ve found them playing one another. Venus got injured and had to pull out right before the match started, giving Serena a walkover.  The fans were angry that the match was canceled, feeling as if it were fixed, and … what happened next seems to differ in the minds of the Williamses,  the “angry fans” and Indian Wells organizers.  The Williamses recall boos, jeers and racist names being  shouted from the crowd as Serena took to the court  play in the final and her family made their way to their seats, while many of the accused deny it happened that way.  Whatever the case, Serena Williams won the tournament, but fled the stadium in tears shortly thereafter as a result of her perception of what happened.  Her father and at-that-time coach Richard Williams and sister Venus Williams unequivocally attest to Serena’s version of the events.

You decide:

But what’s done is done and – sans what’s going on outside the tennis world right now #SAE – it’s a new day.

Indian Wells isn’t a Grand Slam, but it is a Premier Mandatory Master’s level tournament that features all the top players.  And 2015’s competition will be all the more momentous due to women’s tennis’ biggest and most bankable star’s return. 

Serena Williams will be joined by fellow Americans, Taylor Townsend, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens, and her arch nemesis, Maria Sharapova, world no. 2 is also scheduled to play.  She will also be joined by her “friend” and most formidable opponent on tour, Victoria Azarenka, who’s not too long back from injury.  AND the Belarusian will be on deck with who used to be Serena’s trusted hitting partner, Sascha Bajin.  Her long-time friend and colleague defected to Azarenka’s camp sometime after this year’s Australian Open with – according to twitter – no hard feelings:

@bigsascha @vika7 don’t have too much fun without me congrats Sasha

— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) March 4, 2015

He tweeted back:

Thank you @serenawilliams you know @vika7 and me won’t be having any fun. Lol! Thank you for 8 unforgettable years, what a ride it was….

— sascha Bajin (@BigSascha) March 4, 2015

Azarenka joined the tweet-vo in appreciation of Serena’s “coolness” about the change:

“@serenawilliams: @bigsascha @vika7 don’t have too much fun without me congrats Sasha” all love and respect! Thx for being cool

— victoria azarenka (@vika7) March 4, 2015

Could it have really been that simple?  Hmmmm … but, if the two meet, which could only be in the final, it should make for a very interesting match.

“It wasn’t an easy decision.  Sasch said he wanted to be more of a coach, so yeah, he decided to do that,” she said – in short – of the split during her presser.

Back to Serena’s return, IW tournament staff had been reaching out to the Williams sisters for years in an attempt to illicit a change of heart, but no dice from either.  Even in the face of annual fines (due to mandatory tourney), STILL no dice.  But fast forward to today – when racial tensions in the nation are arguably on the rise again – where you’ll find Venus still in boycott mode, but Serena having gone against the grain and forgiven … but would like to forget:

“The whole point of me coming back was not to necessarily focus on what happened 13 years ago,” she told the press.  “It was more or less to focus on how I felt, if it was the right opportunity for me to come back now and for me to be at this tournament.”

As part of her return, which she partly attributed to the late Nelson Mandela’s biography, the 19-time Grand Slam champion even issued a challenge to her fans to donate to her charity and earn a chance to win a free trip to support her as she makes her “desert debut” of sorts.  Kinda like a being a born again virgin; done it before but it’s been such … you get the picture.

“I read the book about a year ago and then I saw the movie,” she said.  … that hit me hard, because I met Mr. Mandela a couple times, and we had some interesting conversations. I just really thought that he made such an impact on my life and the things that I do with charity as well as having an opportunity to meet him. “

“I thought it just — in reading the story, it really hit me in an interesting way.”

Serena will serve her first ball as a mature, 19-time GS winning world no. 1 on Stadium 1 tonight, Friday, at 7 p.m. PST against Monica Niculescu of Romania.  It’s sure to be standing room only, but no word if Richard or Oracene will also show up in support.

ava duvernay - essence

Lincoln Partners With ESSENCE to Honor Exceptional Black Women in Hollywood (Photos)

Jurnee Smollett, Jeanette Jenkins, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tia Mowry, and Holly Robinson-Peete with the Lincoln MKZ at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood

Jurnee Smollett, Jeanette Jenkins, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tia Mowry, and Holly Robinson-Peete with the Lincoln MKZ at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood

*BEVERYLY HILLS – Lincoln Motor Company was the presenting sponsor for ESSENCE’s 8th Annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, which took place yesterday at The Beverly Wilshire.

The 2015 ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon honored outstanding women in the television and film industry. The following were this year’s honorees: “Beyond The Lights” actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw; actress, Regina King; costume designer, Ruth Carter; and the cast of the Netflix Original Series, Orange is the New Black.

Lincoln presented Gugu Mbatha-Raw with the 2015 Black Women in Hollywood Best Breakthrough of the Year Award. The award was co-presented by “Selma” actor, David Oyelowo.

The event was attended by notables in the industry including, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Laverne Cox, Alfre Woodard, Ava DuVernay, Uzo Aduba, Kelly Rowland, Mara Brock Akil, Tracee Ellis Ross, Shonda Rhimes and many, many more.

Mariah Howard, the lucky winner of Lincoln’s #shinelikeastar Instagram contest was able to attend the event and take in the Lincoln experience with a guest. Celebrity guests like Ava DuVernay, Bevy Smith, Lorraine Toussaint, Uzo Aduba and others arrived to the event in 2015 Lincoln MKZ’s and Navigators.

Now in its eighth year, the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon is noted as one of the must-attend events during Oscar week.

Model Chanel Imam attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln.

Model Chanel Imam attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln.

 TV Producer/Writer Shonda Rhimes attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood luncheon presented by Lincoln

TV Producer/Writer Shonda Rhimes attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood luncheon presented by Lincoln

 Michelle Ebanks (President, ESSENCE Communications), Shawn Thompson (Marketing Manager, Lincoln), Tracee Ellis Ross, Guest, Vanessa Bush (Editor in Chief, ESSENCE Magazine)

Michelle Ebanks (President, ESSENCE Communications), Shawn Thompson (Marketing Manager, Lincoln), Tracee Ellis Ross, Guest, Vanessa Bush (Editor in Chief, ESSENCE Magazine)

Lincoln host Bevy Smith chats with Shawn Thompson, Multi-cultural Marketing ManagerLincoln, at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood

Lincoln host Bevy Smith chats with Shawn Thompson, Multi-cultural Marketing ManagerLincoln, at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood

Tia Mowry and husband Cory Hardrict with the Lincoln MKZ at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood

Tia Mowry and husband Cory Hardrict with the Lincoln MKZ at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood

Producer Robi Reed attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Producer Robi Reed attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Star of “Belle” Gugu Mbatha-Raw attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Lincoln presented by Lincoln

Star of “Belle” Gugu Mbatha-Raw attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Lincoln presented by Lincoln

TV Producer/Writer Mara Brock Akil attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood luncheon presented by Lincoln

TV Producer/Writer Mara Brock Akil attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood luncheon presented by Lincoln

Academy Award nominee John Legend walks the carpet at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Academy Award nominee John Legend walks the carpet at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Kelly Rowland attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Kelly Rowland attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Star of “Orange Is The New Black” Uzo Aduba on the red carpet at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood presented by Lincoln

Star of “Orange Is The New Black” Uzo Aduba on the red carpet at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood presented by Lincoln

Academy Award nominee Ava DuVernay attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Academy Award nominee Ava DuVernay attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Alfre Woodard attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Alfre Woodard attends ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon presented by Lincoln

Star of “Orange Is The New Black” Laverne Cox and ESSENCE Magazine Editor In Chief Vanessa Bush attend ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood presented by Lincoln

Star of “Orange Is The New Black” Laverne Cox and ESSENCE Magazine Editor In Chief Vanessa Bush attend ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood presented by Lincoln

Academy Award nominee Common on the carpet at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood presented by Lincoln

Academy Award nominee Common on the carpet at ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood presented by Lincoln

Star of “Selma” David Oyelowo attends the ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood event presented by Lincoln

Star of “Selma” David Oyelowo attends the ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood event presented by Lincoln

About Lincoln
The Lincoln Motor Company is the luxury automotive brand of Ford Motor Company, committed to creating compelling vehicles with an exceptional ownership experience to match. The Lincoln Motor Company is in the process of introducing four all-new vehicles in four years starting with the all-new MKZ in 2013. For more information about The Lincoln Motor Company, please visit media.lincoln.com or www.lincoln.com. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/lincoln.

regina king tv one

Is BWIM the New Oscars? Essence and Lincoln Motors’ Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon Set for Feb. 19

oprah-winfrey-ava-duvernay*Oscars week is heating up, with preparations in Hollywood underway at the Dolby Theater for the show to air live this Sunday (Feb. 22). But the hoopla surrounding this years’ ceremony has tongues of color wagging with disapproval. Many in the black community feel The Academy (AMPAS) has taken leaps backwards this year in terms of diversity, despite the organization being helmed by a black woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, as its president.

In actuality, cries of “whitewashing” and minority exclusion are a huge part of the organization’s historic narrative, but a turning point was seemingly reached in 2001. That year – astonishingly – Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both took home the top awards, Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role, which had long seemed out of reach.  After that historic year, a steady stream of minority entertainers received nominations or wins  – including a jaw-dropping Best Original Song win in 2005 by rap group Three 6 Mafia (“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle and Flow). Not that there weren’t nominations and even wins before then, but the strides made in the concentrated period from ’01 thru ’14 created what some would call a false sense of assurance that the Academy was finally committed to playing fair – until this year.

When the list of nominees for the 2015 ceremony was released, black talking heads’ cries of systemic exclusion were again ignited. The list was a virtual whiteout, including the perceived “snubbing” of the creative forces behind “low-hanging-fruit” film, Selma. The Oprah Winfrey-supported and acted movie managed to eke out Best Picture and Best Song (“Glory” by John Legend and Common) nominations, but was shut out in every other category. The buzz generated from the usually predictive Golden Globes indicated that – movie Annie aside – at least a Best Director nomination was in view for first time black female director, Ava DuVernay; but no such honor was given.  It felt to many like AMPAS, comprised of mostly older white males, had returned to its old ways.

But alas … despite how the Oscar nominations shaped up this year or before, there are organizations that consistently make it a point to recognize and honor the contributions of blacks in the film industry (as well as other areas of entertainment).

Essence Magazine, fueled entirely by celebrating black women, and Lincoln Motor Company are two such companies that demonstrate their commitment to shining the spotlight on black achievement. As one example, these longstanding organizations join forces each year (since ’07) to host the Essence Black Women  in Hollywood Luncheon (BWIM) during the week leading up to the Oscars. The event honors an outstanding group of black women who have made noteworthy impact each year leading up to the luncheon. The illustrious list of honorees from previous years includes industry luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey; Halle Berry; Diahann Carroll; Kerry Washington; Taraji P. Henson; Pam Grier; Nichelle Nichols; Gabrielle Union; Lupita Nyong’o; Ava DuVernay; ironically, AMPAS President, Boone Isaacs and many more.

From a black perspective, it seems that BWIH “is the new Oscars” with the unparalleled caliber of the event and the star power it boasts.  And in keeping with that theme, this 8th annual installment of the luncheon will honor the cast of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black as well as actress/director Regina King; actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.  Former honorees Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay will be among the presenters.

BWIH is the hottest ticket in town and on-site access is limited, but fans can gain exclusive digital access to the luncheon by visiting Essence.com to check out exciting luncheon highlights, some of the happenings from behind the scenes and live streaming of interviews with the stars from the red-carpet. Access begins at 11:00 a.m. PST/2:00 p.m. EST and re-air at 6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST.

Photo Credit: Margot L. Jordon

Soul of the US Open: Serena Williams Etches Name in History Book With 18th Grand Slam Win

Photo Credit: Margot L. Jordan

Photo Credit: Margot L. Jordan

*An unusually mild Sunday afternoon in Flushing, New York,  just two hours before the 2014 US Open ladies final, found WTA tour besties, Serena Williams, 32, and Caroline Wozniacki, 24, both out on the practices courts, with only a few unused courts separating them, getting in their last bit of practice before the big showdown.

Serena was about her business, trading thumping groundstrokes with her hitting partner, Sascha Bajin, while coach Patrick Mouratoglou looked on, but Wozniacki was a little distracted. She’d hit a few balls back across the net coming from her hitting partner, Marta Domachowska, but then she’d stop and take a glances down the courts at Serena’s pre-match regimen. No doubt a combination of nerves and hope she had to be feeling with each glance regarding the outcome of her first Grand Slam final in 5 years.   This time was against her friend, but more importantly a woman on a mission of redemption and history making, the indomitable Serena.

The pair had played one another on nine different occasions, with Serena winning the head-to-head 8-1 (Miami), but never in a Grand Slam final. In fact, Wozniacki had only been to one GS final in her entire career:  the US Open in 2009, which she lost to Belgian Kim Clijsters.

Wozniacki had held the world no.1 ranking for 67 weeks and was known for her superior defensive skills, which helped her wear down opponents and win matches. But in a Slam, all players are on deck and as she would get deeper in such tournaments, she would face big hitters like Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who would all nullify her defense with match dominating offense. Since then, however, she worked to fine-tuned her game and began to beef up her serve and groundstrokes to better hang with those she couldn’t phase before.

As payoff for her work, whereas her earlier matches with Serena Williams more decidedly one-sided, their last two meeting leading up to this US Open went to three close sets, with Williams still winning, but being pushed to the hilt to do so. Further building the momentum, she, for the first time in all their meetings, knocked out a wobbly, but always formidable Sharapova in the US Open round of 16, gaining confidence she hadn’t had before. Her work to build viable weapons coupled with a return to focus – or personal revenge – after being dumped by her then-fiancee, golf pro, Rory Mcllroy, was paying dividends, finding her with a chance to finally earn her first Grand Slam win that’s been so elusive throughout her career.

She likely wouldn’t have preferred the barrier between she and the top prize be an in-form Serena Williams who arrived at her 8th US Open final without having dropped a set and not allowing her opponents to get more than three games per. But it was what it was and not being one to shrink back from a challenge, she did her due diligence and took to Arthur Ashe court to battle it out with her friend.

Serena came into the hard court season as an emotionally fragile woman. Her 2013 had been perhaps the best tennis season of her life, winning 11 tour titles, 2 Grand Slams and two Olympic Gold medals, but 2014 was a different story. She was knocked out before reaching the semifinals in the three Grand Slams (Alize Cornet [Wimbledon], Garbine Muguruza [French Open] and Ana Ivanovic [Australian Open]) previous to the US Open and her last appearance on grass, at Wimbledon in a doubles match with her sister saw her forfeit the match due to disorientation inducing viral illness.

Never one to take setbacks lying down (her spectacular 2013 season was on the heels of a shocking first round loss at the French Open to a much lesser opponent), she burst onto the US Open Series hard courts winning 2 titles (titles) and reaching the semis of the Cincinnati Open. Her performance even qualified her to win an extra $1 million dollars if she wins the US Open title.

Her “resurgence” had been the story of the late summer and tennis prognosticators were eager to see if it would transfer to the last major of the year, the US Open, where she’s the two-time defending champion. There was understandable uncertainty because regular tour titles hadn’t been her bugaboo in 2014; she’s won more titles this year than any of her WTA cohorts, but she just couldn’t produce at the majors. Her dominance over these two weeks at Flushing Meadows, which has led to her earning the opportunity to compete in the final for her 6th US Open title and history making 18th GS win overall, however, has silenced her critics and assured her fans that she’s still “the one to beat.”

Serena was so dominant in 2013 till even with her lackluster Slam performance this year she’s still guaranteed to hang on to her no.1 ranking beyond the tournament and she’s at no. 1 on the year-end Road to Singapore leaderboard. A woman on a mission she’s been called and, with her 18th major title win, she would be in the minds of many the best female athlete that has ever lived.

That’s the woman who was going to be on the other side of the net from Wozniacki during the final.

Who was hungry enough and had the most to prove to walk away with the win? Was it the GS title-less Dane or the history hungry American?

It was decided in a two-set virtual blow out with Serena Williams digging in to rewrite history and prove to herself and her fans that she wasn’t done. Wozniacki was gracious in defeat, but she was no match for a hungry Serena, arguably the best female athlete the world has ever seen.  Serena dominated nearly every point and had Wozniacki on the run for the entire match, outclassing the Dane in every department.  Serve, check…110 – 120mph.  Groundstrokes, check…too powerful to handle.  Returns, check…punishing serves with clean winners off the cuff.

It’s been said that the outcome of her matches are always on her racquet and her performance on Sunday is why.  Some may trouble her when she’s not fully engaged (as did Wozniacki their last two meetings), but when she decides she must win, she usually does, no matter the opponent.

Photo Credit: Margot L. Jordan

Photo Credit: Margot L. Jordan

Serena won match point, collapsed to the court and covered her face. She had done it, defending the title in just over an hour and took home a tennis payout record total of $4 million in prize money, along with a Tiffany 18k bracelet (representing 18 Slams won) presented to her by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, whom she now shares a page with in the history books.

“It just means so much to me,” she gushed.  “I just never thought I’d be mentioned with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.”

Congrats to Serena Williams, the reigning “Queen of New York” for winning her 6th total and 3rd consecutive US Open title and 18th total Grand Slam at 32 years young.