From The First to The Greatest: Black Female Tennis Legends
Althea Gibson and Serena Williams both dominated the sport of tennis decades apart. Yet, they faced many of the same obstacles on their roads to success.
It is easy to focus on their individual greatness. However, when we dig deeper into their trailblazing stories, we uncover the pivotal roles their communities and families played throughout their journeys.
In American society, we are encouraged to be individualistic. On the other hand, Black people have traditionally been communal and recognized the importance of lifting each other up in order for us all to win.
Althea Gibson went from complete exclusion to controlling the tennis world during a time when blatant racism and discrimination were the status quo. After the Great Depression devastated her father’s sharecropping business in South Carolina, Althea and her family were uprooted.
They moved to Harlem, NY, where she discovered her passion for tennis. She became entrenched in a community where people quickly noticed her talent and generously supported her.
Her neighbors even took up a collection for her to afford membership into the local tennis club. This club served as her first exposure to formal tennis training and gave her access to city-wide tournaments.
Little did Althea know that she would eventually become the No. 1 ranked female tennis player in the world and transcend racial barriers along the way. Lobbying from other players and the American Tennis Association led to Althea integrating whites-only tennis clubs.
At these clubs, she showcased her skills on a much larger platform. Not only did she destroy competitors, but she obliterated the racist narrative that Black women were unfit to compete on a national level.
As the first Black woman to win Wimbledon, U.S. Nationals, and the French Open, the mark Althea left on tennis is undeniable.
There would be no Serena Williams without Althea Gibson. Serena has rightfully credited her as a major inspiration and thanked her for paving the way for her monumental career.
Just like Althea, Serena could not have reached her full potential without a supportive community. It can almost be said that Serena’s success was written in the stars: her father even developed an 85-page plan outlining how he would make both his daughters tennis greats before they were born.
At age 9, Serena’s family moved to Florida, so she could attend a prestigious tennis academy. However, she quickly left the academy due to harsh racism from coaches and players.
At this moment, her father took over coaching her full-time. Though he had no tennis experience himself, he self-educated with books and videos providing the necessary context for Serena to grow and thrive as a young tennis player.
His actions and vision are significant because they demonstrate that Black people are fully capable of being great outside of the comfort of white institutions. Serena is currently the winningest female tennis player of all time and recently made the Forbes list as the highest-earning female athlete.
None of her success would have been possible without the constant support of her parents, the challenge of sparring with her sister Venus, and the legacy of those pioneers who came before her.
Althea and Serena’s stories show us exactly what is possible when we support ourselves and pool community resources to invest in our youth’s development.
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