The list of Black female Grand Slam tennis champions is a very short one. So is the list of Black female Olympic tennis champions. Among this very select group of Black female athletes is Althea Gibson and the Williams Sisters. Althea Gibson paved the way for all Blacks in tennis to follow. Venus and Serena have literally picked up the ball and crushed it.
Althea Gibson (August 25th, 1927 – September 28th, 2003) was gifted enough to compete at the top level in two sports, tennis and golf. She was referred to as the female Jackie Robinson, because she broke the color barrier in professional tennis. She was also the first Black woman to join the LPGA, where she achieved a second place tournament finish.
During her career, she won 56 doubles and singles tennis titles before gaining national and international acclaim in the professional tennis leagues. In the late 1950s, Gibson won eleven major titles including three straight doubles titles at the French Open in 1956, 1957 and 1958. She won a total of five Grand Slam titles, winning the French Open in 1956, and was the first Black player to win Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.
In 1957 and 1958 she was the top-ranked U.S. women’s tennis player. In 1971 she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.
Gibson was the first Black to be named as the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957. She was given that honor again the following year. When she won her second U.S. Championship, she went professional.
Gibson is also known for playing a set of matches before the famed Harlem Globetrotter basketball games that netted her a reported $100,000 in one year.
Over her lifetime she ammased the following awards:
- International Tennis Hall of Fame
- National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame
- International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame
- New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame
- Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame
- International Scholar-Athletes Hall of Fame
- Black Athletes Hall of Fame
- South Carolina Hall of Fame
- Florida Sports Hall of Fame
- Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (1957-1958)
- First Ladies Salute First Women Award
- Who’s Who in American Women
- Babe Zaharias Outstanding Women Athlete of the Year
- NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award
- Sports Illustrated Top 100 Greatest Female Athletes
- Florida A&M Athlete of the Century
- Florida Women’s Hall of Fame
All of these accomplishments are even more remarkable when you take into consideration that she rose to be the best in the world during a time that predates the civil rights movement. Like Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson had to endure significant prejudice and racism and was still able to blaze the trail for all Blacks to follow, including Arthur Ashe.
Gibson died at the age of 76 in New Jersey from cancer.
"I’ve always dreamed of being on the same level as her, to have an opportunity to play tennis. For her to be the pioneer to all of tennis, not just female tennis, but all of tennis. It’s just amazing for me to be honored to even mention her name."
It took over forty years for another Black female tennis player to come along who could eclipse Althea’s Grand Slam record. With the Williams sisters tennis fans have been blessed with a 2 for 1. With Serena winning her fifth Wimbledon title, the Williams sisters have reached a remarkable milestone. Combined, they have won 10 out of the last 13 Wimbledon women’s single titles (2001-2003, 2005, 2007-2010, 2012). They are among the best to ever play the game, with Serena being talked about as being possibly the best Women’s player ever. In terms of overall Grand Slam titles Venus has 7, Serena has 15 and jointly they hold 13 doubles titles. Overall, Venus has 43 singles titles and 21 doubles titles and Serena has 44 and 22 titles respectively. Add to this 2 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles and 2 Olympic doubles gold medals. Both have been ranked #1 in the World in singles and doubles.
Venus became the No. 1 in the world for the first time on February 25, 2002, the first Black woman to achieve this feat during the Open Era. Her 22 Grand Slam titles tie her for twelfth on the all time list. Her seven Grand Slam singles titles also place her with four other women for twelfth place on the all-time list. Venus Williams is one of only five women in the open era to have won five or more Wimbledon singles titles. Williams has won three Olympic gold medals, one in singles and two in women’s doubles. She has won more Olympic gold medals than any other female tennis player. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Williams became only the second player to win Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles at the same Olympic Games, after Helen Wills Moody in 1924. Her 35-match winning streak from the 2000 Wimbledon Championships to the 2000 Generali Ladies Linz tournament final is the longest winning streak since January 1, 2000. She is also one of only three active WTA players to have made the finals of all four Grand Slams, the other players being her sister and Russian Maria Sharapova. She is second in prize money earnings after her sister.
Serena is the number one female athlete prize money earner in any sport, fourth among all tennis athletes. Her 30 Grand Slam titles place her ninth on the all-time list. She is the most recent player, male or female, to have held all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously and only the fifth woman ever to do so. She was also the first woman, along with her older sister, to hold all four Grand Slam doubles titles simultaneously since Martina Hingis did so in 1998. Her 15 Grand Slam singles titles is sixth on the all-time list. Serena ranks fourth in Grand Slam women’s singles titles won during the open era, behind Steffi Graf (22 titles) and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 titles each). Among active players, male or female, she holds the most Major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. She is the first player, male or female, to win 5 Australian Open singles titles during the open era.
And they are not done yet!
Any way you look at this, individually or collectively, this is an amazing fete which becomes more groundbreaking when you consider that they have not competed every year as they have taken time off to pursue other interests outside of tennis. The Williams are the first Black women to obtain ownership in an NFL franchise, as part owners in the Miami Dolphins. You have to respect the fact that they have attacked their sport on their own terms while maintaining their strong family bond.
They have faced a different circumstances than Althea Gibson, but have also run into racism along the way. They have handled it with strength and grace.
Sources: Wikipedia, Althea Gibson website