(WOMENSENEWS)–While crowds thrill to Jennifer Capriati, the comeback kid, and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, steamroll opponents at the U.S. Open; while media outlets hype the players’ “catfights;” several spirits infuse the events at the Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums in Flushing, N.Y.
One is Althea Gibson, for whom there is no towering monument on the tournament grounds. Gibson, not Arthur Ashe, broke the color line in tennis. A sharecroppers’ daughter, she came up in Harlem, hitting on public courts. Number one in the American Tennis Association, the equivalent of baseball’s Negro Leagues, she was barred from United States Lawn Tennis Association competitions.
Amidst the rumblings of what became a post-war civil rights movement and backed by former champion Alice Marble, who publicly condemned the tennis world’s bigotry, Gibson stepped onto a tournament court on Aug. 28, 1950. She won that match and, later, five Grand Slam titles.
The second, Billie Jean King, brought the 1970s movement for women’s liberation to the sports world, beginning with tennis. Agitating and organizing against second-class citizenship, King forced the tennis world to gender-equalize prize money and provide more tournaments for women players. In 1974 she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women’s Sports & Fitness magazine. If we now think of female players as strong, tough, aggressive, competitive, hard-smashing, fast-serving, full of grit, not to mention big earners, we have Gibson, King and a few others to thank.
Gibson received almost no material benefits for her years as a champion and during the early 1990’s she was ill and broke. Her friends rallied on her behalf and–while she still suffers from arthritis and residual weakness from a stroke–she is earning sums substantial enough from her name and image to fund a non-profit organization in Newark, N.J., that offers the city’s children training in tennis and golf.
In 1981, King became the center of a scandal. She was sued unsuccessfully for “palimony” by a former secretary–which cost her millions in endorsement money. Nonetheless, she bounced back to create the popular Team Tennis and is now a television commentator.
These women broke the barriers, paid the price and now are reaping their rewards–part of which, certainly, must be the thrill of watching the sisters and Jennifer smash records on a much more level playing field.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand on: Women as Agents of Change.”
For more information:
Women’s Sports Foundation:
U.S. Open 2001: