U.S. Open Firsts

US OPENSerena Williams is favored to win the U.S. Open. If she does she will have a calendar Grand Slam: winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open in the same year. She will be the first player to do this since Steffi Graf in 1988.

Serena is probably also responsible for another first. This year, for the first time in the history of the U.S. Open (since 1881) the women’s singles finals sold out before the men’s.

Katrina Adams also adds to the firsts since, just this year, she became the first African-American and first former professional tennis player to serve as the USTA’s Chairman of the Board, CEO and President.

How long until women play five sets?

Billie Jean King – Tennis Star

          Most First Women To. . .help those who follow them, but some women fight battles that improve whole classes of women. Billie Jean King was a flagbearer for all girls who love athletics. 

BILLIE JEAN KING PHOTO Billie Jean King’s tennis career spans the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s, just as American women were finding their voices and demanding more options. When she won Wimbledon in 1968 she received £750 in prize money while the male competitor, Rod Laver, received £2,000. Relying on her skill and popularity, she initiated a campaign for equal prize money for men and women.

In 1971 King was the first woman athlete, in any sport, to earn $100,000 in prize money, an achievement so significant that President Nixon called to congratulate her. In 1972, when she received $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase for winning the U.S. Open, she said she would not participate again unless the prize money was equal. The following year, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women.

That same year King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and was its first president. She also competed in a match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” Challenged by former tennis star Bobby Rigg’s claim that women played an inferior game of tennis, she agreed to play a winner-takes-all match against Riggs in the Houston Astrodome. King won in straight sets. The London Sunday Times called it “the drop shot and volley heard around the world.” By 1975 Seventeen magazine’s readers named Billie Jean King the most admired woman in the world.

Her most courageous moment, however, may have been in 1981 when, against the advice of her publicist and lawyer, she “came out.” Within twenty-four hours she had lost every single endorsement. By 1990, as times had changed, Time magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” There were three male athletes on the list: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. There was only one woman athlete: Billie Jean King.

King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. In 2006 the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In 2009 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She continues to advocate for gender equity in sports.

LEARN MORE:

Billie Jean King talks about women’s rights in sports: http://www.makers.com/billie-jean-king     WARNING: There is an annoying ten-second nursery-rhyme-like tune that interrupts the interview and scrambles your brain. Fortunately, there is a count down and you can mute the sound for those ads.

Books by Billie Jean King:

Billie Jean (1974, with Kim Chapin)

The Autobiography of Billie Jean King (1982 with Frank Deford)

We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women’s Tennis (1988, with Cynthia Starr)

Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes (2008, with Christine Brennan)

QUESTION OF THE WEEK:

In high school I played half-court basketball because “girls do not have the stamina for full-court basketball.” Did you experience discrimination when playing sports?

Althea Gibson – Tennis Champion

Althea Gibson wasn’t fond of school and thought nothing of skipping classes; but she was dedicated to tennis, even though her family had to wait until dark to find practice time, after all the white people had left the court,. That practice in the semi-dark was a benefit, she reflected later, giving her a good sense of where to find the ball even when she couldn’t see it. 

ALTHEA GIBSONAlthea Gibson was the first black woman to win tennis championships at the French Open, the United States Open, the Australian and Wimbledon tournaments. Her achievement is understood better in a historical context. The professional tennis association, called the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), the precursor of the USTA which was formed in 1975, formally barred black players from competition. Although historically black colleges had tennis teams as early as the 1890’s, black players could not compete with white players.

In 1916 a group of black tennis clubs formed the American Tennis Association and fostered tennis players of color. Althea Gibson was fifteen in 1944 when she won her first juniors championship in the ATA. She won again the following year and starting in  1947 won ten straight women’s finals.

In spite of the policy to bar players of her skin color, Althea Gibson petitioned the USLTA to admit her to its tournaments and the ATA supported her petition. At first she was rejected, but in 1950 former tennis champion Alice Marble wrote a scathing open letter to American Lawn Tennis magazine, advocating for admitting black players. “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen,” she wrote, “it’s. . .time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites” The USLTA relented and allowed Althea Gibson to play at the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open). She was the first black player of either gender ever selected.

In the 1950’s she won eleven major titles and was the first African American to be named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957—and again in 1958. During both of those years she was the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world.

At the end of her career, she played exhibition tennis games before performances of the Harlem Globetrotters. Then she turned to professional golf and was the first African American woman admitted to the LPGA. She served as Commissioner of Athletics for New Jersey and on other boards for the governor of the state.

Althea Gibson wrote an autobiography titled, I Always Wanted to be Somebody. She released a record album, Althea Gibson Sings, and appeared in a film entitled, The Horse Soldiers. In 1972 she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.

LEARN MORE:

For a longer bio (and list of her tournaments): http://www.altheagibson.com/biography

For a video about her: http://www.biography.com/people/althea-gibson-9310580

To hear her sing, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADvpgOrB5wY

Read: I Always Wanted to be Somebody by Althea Gibson or Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis by Cecil Harris

QUESTION OF THE WEEK:

“I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps,” Venus Williams wrote of Althea Gibson. “Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.” Were there women who paved the way for you? Or perhaps some men?