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Although there have been huge improvements in gender equality within the tennis circuit and Wimbledon itself (Sue Barker and Clare Balding head the BBC coverage team), last year I noticed that the rhetoric surrounding tennis was still male dominated. The BBC coverage team may be led by two females, but the majority of commentators are still male and largely white. Most of the newspaper headlines involving tennis centre around the ‘Big Four’ (Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal) all of whom are male and the achievements of women within the sport seem to go by unnoticed. With this year’s tournament having now drawn to close, I’m exploring some of the women who have changed the game through history.
Althea Gibson (1927 – 2003)
Gibson was a professional tennis and golf player. She was the first person of colour to win a Grand Slam, when she won the French open in 1956 and was voted Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and ‘58. Overall, Althea won 11 Grand Slam titles in both singles and doubles. By the age of 12, Althea was New York City’s female paddle tennis champion, which spurred her neighbour’s to take up a collection to finance her tennis lessons.
At a time when racism was widespread within the sporting industry, playing tennis as a black person, especially a black women, was extremely difficult. However Althea fought against the discrimination she faced and enrolled within the racially segregated Williston Industrial High School to further her training. In 1950, Althea received an invitation to compete at the United States National Championship (now the US Open) and became the first black person to ever play within the competition. Although the Championship itself prohibited racial/ethnic discrimination, to qualify you had to gain points from tournaments that were mostly only accessible to white people. Due to public backlash Althea was rightly invited to play and although she lost narrowly, the game was a groundbreaking moment in tennis history. Only a year later Althea became the first black player at Wimbledon – she later won both Grand Slams in 1957 and “58. Other achievements include being the Number 1 female tennis player in 57/8 and becoming the first black women to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. Once she retired from amateur tennis, Althea went on to become a professional golf player – where again she fought against racial discrimination. She was often not allowed in the hotels with the other players and was denied entry to the golf clubhouses. However this didn’t stop her from pursuing her goals and in 1964 she became the first African-American women to join the LPGA tour.
In later life Althea coached tennis as well as being on the board for numerous government-run and independent tennis associations. New York Times columnist William C Rhodes best sums how important Gibson was in tennis and sports history –
‘Althea’s accomplishments were revolutionary because of the psychosocial impact on black America. Even to those blacks who hadn’t the slightest idea of where or what Wimbledon was, her victory, like Jackie Robinson’s in baseball and Jack Johnson’s in boxing, proved again that blacks, when given an opportunity, could compete at any level in American society.’