Women Who Changed the Game of Tennis
The beginning of tennis as we know it today, began in the mid-nineteenth century, and believe it or not, women were participating in this sport from the very beginning! In fact, mixed doubles has been documented as far back as 1874. Bear in mind, women were playing in a long skirt and bustle, but they were still playing on the same field as their male counterparts.
Mary Ewing Outerbridge
Inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981, Mary Ewing Outerbridge is considered the “Mother of Tennis” in America. It was during her trip abroad when she saw Englishmen playing. Fascinated with the game, she purchased a few rackets and balls and brought them back home.
The first tennis game in America was played at the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club in New York. It was February, 1874. ¹
In 1884, Maud Watson was the first ladies champion of the Wimbledon tournament. She won prizes worth about 20 guineas, and ended up winning two consecutive Wimbledon championships in 1884 and 1885, and placing as the runner up the following year.
Paving the way for future Olympians, Charlotte Cooper was a Wimbledon champion and the first woman to win a gold medal in tennis at the 1900 Olympics. Though tennis was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1894, it wasn’t until 1900 that there was a women’s division.
Helen Wills Moody
She won 31 Grand Slam tournaments and is credited with wearing a tennis outfit that propelled a more modern look to women’s tennis fashion. Moody also holds two gold Olympic medals from her performance in the Paris games in 1924, and held the record for most wins at Wimbledon until 1990.
Breaking the color barrier, Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman to become a professional tennis player. Moreover, Gibson also became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam tournament when she won the French Open. For this reason, Althea Gibson has often been compared to Jackie Robinson.
With a total of 11 Grand Slam tournament wins under her belt, Althea Gibson is often considered to be one of the greatest tennis athletes to have ever picked up a racket.
Billie Jean King
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Billie Jean King was the top-ranked professional tennis player in the world. She won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles, 12 of which were in singles, 11 were in mixed doubles, and 16 were in women’s doubles. In addition to her long list of professional wins, King also founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Women’s Tennis Association.
She has always been a lifelong advocate for gender equality in sports and used her status to shed light on the disparity of pay between men and women. The U.S. Open was the first major organization to acquiesce to her threat to boycott major tournaments. They offered equal prize payments for men and women.
When, in 1973, she was matched against Bobby Riggs, a Wimbledon champion and vocal chauvinist, Ms. King defeated him in a much acclaimed “Battle of the Sexes,” proving that women could be just as powerful as men on the court. She not only changed women’s tennis, she remains a strong voice in women’s rights. ³
Venus and Serena Williams
The Williams sisters are considered, by most, to be among the greatest tennis athletes of all time. Both have ranked number one in singles and doubles and have each one four Olympic gold medals—the most for any one tennis player. As a team, the Williams sisters have one 22 doubles titles. Individually, Venus has won 7 Grand Slam Women’s Singles titles, while Serena has won 23.
Their unparalleled strength and charisma brought in new tennis fans; their unique hairstyles and fashion summoned an age of fresh attire and expression on the court, and this dynamic duo opened the floodgates for women of color to pursue their dreams and break through glass ceilings.
As recently as 2006, the pay gap was still prominent in Wimbledon. Venus Williams put the full weight of her brand and celebrity into fighting for equal pay. In 2007, her efforts paid off and the Wimbledon committee recognized the importance of women in tennis and increased their pay to eliminate the difference.
Who else should be on this list of pioneering women in tennis?
Let us know in comments below.