NEW YORK -- Venus Williams and Serena Williams carry Althea Gibson's legacy forward every time they step on a court, every time they hoist a Grand Slam trophy.
So on a night set aside to honor the 50th anniversary of the first U.S National Championship title for a black tennis player, the Williams sisters figured the best way to celebrate Gibson was to win.
Simple as that, they did.
Venus Williams beat Kira Nagy of Hungary 6-2, 6-1 in the first round of the U.S. Open on Monday -- and hit a Grand Slam-record 129 mph serve in the process. Serena Williams topped out at 126 mph and had only slightly more trouble getting past Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-3, 7-5 before a tournament-record crowd of 23,737.
"I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea," Venus Williams said. "Just trying to follow in her footsteps."
The siblings narrated a video that opened the tribute to Gibson, who was the first black man or woman to enter (in 1950) and to win (in 1957) Wimbledon and the tournament that's now called the U.S. Open.
In 1999, Serena Williams became the first black woman since Gibson to win the U.S. Open. The next year, Venus Williams became the first black woman since Gibson to win Wimbledon.
Top-seeded Justine Hennin acknowledges the crowd after her first-round victory. (Getty Images)
"I know every time I step out on the court, I play for me and I play for all the other little African-American kids out there who have a dream and who might not have the means, like myself and my sisters didn't growing up," Serena Williams said.
"It's important to have nights like this," she added, "so you can teach young people."
Aretha Franklin sang, actress Phylicia Rashad emceed, and Rachel Robinson, baseball barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson's widow, was in the audience Monday as the late Gibson was inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions.
"It was definitely a tough act to follow. ... It was really moving," said Venus Williams, limited by wrist and knee problems to only one tournament since winning Wimbledon in early July.
"It's like, 'OK. Williams can't lose tonight. That's not part of the plan. It's supposed to be an all-American win tonight.' I was definitely thinking that."
She built a 24-6 edge in winners and never was threatened. Serena Williams, playing for the first time since hurting her left thumb at Wimbledon, scattered 26 unforced errors and got broken the first time she served for the match.
"I didn't play well at all," the younger Williams said. "At all."
She also had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction, ripping off a pink bow from the front of her black dress while seated in a sideline chair. Venus Williams, meanwhile, showed off her new low-priced clothing line with a green pleated halter dress.
It actually was a pretty good day for Americans, including Ahsha Rolle, a 22-year-old playing in her third Grand Slam match. She surprised No. 17-seeded Tatiana Golovin of France 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, also under the lights.
"I was watching a little bit of the (Gibson) tribute. I thought that of all the nights, I've got to do it tonight," Rolle said. "I wasn't scared, I wasn't nervous. I was ready to bring it."
So was John Isner. Nothing about him is subtle. Everything about him is super-sized, from his 6-foot-9 frame to his 140 mph serves.
Add in large expectations, too, which will only increase now that Isner played the very first Grand Slam match of his nascent career Monday and won it. Fresh out of college, Isner smacked 34 aces to knock off 26th-seeded Jarkko Nieminen of Finland 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.
"It's a huge step for me," said the 22-year-old Isner, who led Georgia to the NCAA tennis title. "To be able to beat a guy like that means a lot, says a lot: No matter who I'm playing, seeded or not ... I feel like I can go out there and compete."
Joining him in the second round was another young American who needed a wild card to get into the year's last major tournament: Donald Young, the Wimbledon junior champion, who recently snapped an 0-for-11 drought in tour-level matches.
Young remembered writing a biography about Gibson when he was in sixth grade, which actually wasn't all that long ago. He turned 18 last month and is signed up for the U.S. Open junior tournament next week.
"When you play out here, there's not that much pressure, because I'm (ranked) like 200 in the world, and everybody's top-100," the No. 223 Young said after eliminating No. 93 Chris Guccione of Australia 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. "I'm not supposed to win."
People such as No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 1 Justine Henin are, and on Monday they did, rather easily. Both advanced in straight sets, as did No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, who then talked about the gambling probe surrounding a match he played early this month.
"It's pretty tough, mentally, to play," said Davydenko, a semifinalist last year, who encountered little trouble in a 6-4, 6-0, 6-1 victory over Jesse Levine, another American wild card.
Nieminen prepared to face Isner by having practice partners move all the way up from the baseline to the service box to hit serves. It didn't help much.
Here's how Isner began: 125 mph ace, 114 mph second-serve service winner, 135 mph ace, 137 mph serve that was returned before Nieminen eventually netted a forehand. Four points, all to Isner, and a trend was set.
At 4-4 in the first set, when Isner faced his first break point at 30-40, this is what he delivered: 135 mph ace, 136 mph ace, 124 mph ace. Bingo! Service game held. By the end, Isner had faced seven break points - and saved all of them. He only earned three break points, all in the final set, but he converted the one he needed with a backhand return winner in the seventh game.
While Young next faces No. 13 Richard Gasquet -- who compared the kid to former No. 1 Marcelo Rios -- Isner gets 146th-ranked qualifier Rik De Voest of South Africa.
Isner hadn't heard of De Voest. He does know a thing or two about his possible third-round opponent, though: Federer.
"I'm not in any position where I can look ahead," Isner said. "Maybe he can, but not me."
The Associated Press News Service