Cecil Harris is the author of four books, including Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (February 2020).
As we commemorate Black History Month, let’s take a moment to recognize the significant contributions by blacks in an activity that may not immediately come to mind—tennis.
Because of sisters Venus and Serena Williams, it is no longer plausible for people to say they have never heard of a black tennis player.
Serena and Venus have become ingrained in the public consciousness. Since their debuts in the 1990s, they have revolutionized their sport. Thanks to them, women’s tennis is faster, quicker, hard-hitting and more athletic than ever.
Venus, the elder sister by 15 months, has won seven major titles (five at Wimbledon, two at the U.S. Open) and four Olympic gold medals. Venus and Serena have won three Olympic gold medals as a doubles team. Venus also led a movement that gave women equal prize money at Wimbledon beginning in 2007.
Despite being diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren’s Syndrome, a debilitating muscle and joint disease, and despite approaching her 40th birthday on June 17, Venus is still formidable on court. She earned $41 million in prize money in 2017—more than any other female player.
Her achievements would be even greater if not for Serena’s. Since the Open era ushered in professional tennis in 1968, no player has won more Grand Slam titles than Serena. With her powerful serve and ground strokes, she has raked in more than $90 million in prize money. With her many endorsements, she is, according to Forbes, the richest female athlete ever with $225 million… and counting.
Yet Serena, who turns 39 on September 26, is actually underrated. If you Google “most major tennis titles in the Open era,” Google tells you the answer is Roger Federer. Wrong. Serena has 23 major titles; Federer has 20.
In my book, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution, I closely examine the tennis triumphs and cultural impact of Venus and Serena, as well as the black tennis pioneers who endured overt bigotry to help pave the way.
Althea Gibson became the first black player to be ranked world No. 1 when she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1957. For this, she received a ticker-tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes in her hometown of New York City—and no money. Only amateur tennis existed then.
Racism from the tennis establishment prevented Gibson from playing in the U.S. Nationals doubles championships from 1950–56, even though she played singles in those years. That exclusion cost Gibson a chance to win another 14 major titles in doubles and mixed doubles.
Nevertheless, she won 11 Grand Slam titles: five in singles, six in doubles.
Arthur Ashe, an elegant and erudite social activist with a potent game, won the first U.S. Open in 1968 along with one major title each at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. He also captured two major titles in doubles, and he always kept in check whatever anger he may have felt from racial slights to ensure that other blacks would eventually get their chance.
“Sure, I get fed up being the nice guy,” Ashe once said. “But back in the ’60s, if you were black and the first one, you simply had to behave yourself.”
Today, the U.S. Open’s biggest matches are played in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But as my book’s subtitle makes clear, the black revolution in tennis is unfinished.
No African American man has won a major tennis title since Ashe at Wimbledon in 1975.
And no African American umpire has officiated a U.S. Open men’s or women’s final since 1993. Why not? The U.S. Tennis Association, the sport’s national governing body, has not allowed it to happen. Despite the presence of many qualified African American umpires, and despite the presence from 2015–19 of Katrina Adams as the USTA’s first black president.
It’s a complicated story that is made clear in Different Strokes. This is also clear: Because of Venus, Serena, Gibson, Ashe, Adams and other people of color who have impacted the sport, tennis and black history are now inextricably bound.