The Legacies of Black Female Athlete Pioneers: Tennis Legends Althea Gibson and the Williams Sisters

3 min read

Cece Hampton ’24

Sports Editor

Virtually everyone has heard of the famous tennis-playing sister duo Serena and Venus Williams who, at this point, have become household names. Globally recognized for their tennis skills and among some of the highest paid female athletes in the world, both sisters have created an influential legacy which will continue to inspire people for generations to come. Serena, in particular, has been recognized as the face of tennis, winning her first U.S. Open in 1999. For the past several decades, Serena has continuously advocated for increased racial and gender representation in the tennis world.

Until the 1980s and 90s, tennis remained a mostly white-dominated sport, due to a number of barriers like high tennis club fees and strict dress codes. This remained the case when Serena and Venus began their tennis careers. Throughout their entire careers, the sisters have experienced different forms of racial discrimination, from critiques of their appearance and physique, to being called racial slurs, as well as being the victims of offensive cartoons and language, and more. However, despite all of this, the Williams sisters have maintained their fight for racial and gender equality and done so successfully. In 2007 when Serena won the Wimbledon, she became the first woman to ever be paid equally to her male counterpart. This was a huge achievement for not just Black female athletes, but all female athletes.

While we celebrate the careers of both Williams sisters, especially with Serena announcing her official retirement last summer, we also must remember and give credit to their predecessor, Althea Gibson. Gibson was the first ever Black champion of women’s tennis. In 1950, she broke the color barrier of tennis and became the first African-American woman to play in the National Tennis Championship. Additionally, Gibson was the first Black woman to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Gibson’s career lasted for eight years, spanning from 1950 to 1958. She was the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated; however, despite all of her success, she struggled financially. At the time, there were no professional tours for women, and barely any prize money available in professional tournaments. Gibson then turned to social activism and golf instead. While her white counterparts in the tennis world were granted opportunities and deals, Gibson was unable to continue competing and making ends meet for herself financially. In contrast, as of 2022, Serena Williams was the second-highest paid female athlete in the world. Considering Gibson’s struggles with being fairly compensated throughout her career, this is a remarkable testament to each of their legacies.

According to a study by Sports Marketing Surveys, between 2019 and 2021, participation in tennis by Black players increased by a whopping 44%. This growth was stronger in women’s tennis than men’s, with the United States Tennis Association attributing it to Serena as a source of inspiration for young Black females to get involved in tennis after witnessing Serena play. The legacies of Althea Gibson and Serena and Venus Williams will live on for generations to come, as we continue to recognize and celebrate the impacts of Black athletes throughout history.

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