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Five Black Women Tennis Stars
Who Stood Their Ground

Venus and Serena Williams are known as Olympic Gold Medalists, but both on and off the court, they’ve become staunch advocates for gender and racial equality. Today’s tennis stars like Naomi Osaka and the Williams sisters are modeling activism for the next generation, but did you know there were other trailblazing Black tennis players who also took a stand?

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson arrived on the tennis scene after her family moved from South Carolina to Harlem during The Great Migration. Unhappy with her classes and peers, she dropped out of school at age 13 to focus solely on tennis. This caught the attention of a wealthy Black family who was invested in her future by sponsoring her training at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. Due to her natural talent and aggressive style of play, she rose in the ranks, but because of segregation, she was banned from playing American tournaments. Prominent player Alice Marble wrote a letter praising Gibson to the American Lawn Tennis Magazine: “[She] was blessed with more natural ability than any woman on the courts today.”


She was eventually allowed access, and in 1957, Gibson became the first Black Grand Slam champion at Wimbledon. After winning Wimbledon, she told reporters, “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” But Gibson always downplayed her pioneering role. “I have never regarded myself as a crusader,” she writes in her 1958 autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. “I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause…” She wanted to be remembered as being a champion and be a model for other girls who picked up a racquet.

Zina Garrison & Taylor Townsend

Garrison was the first Black woman since Althea Gibson to win the Grand Slam singles final after a 32-year drought. Off the court, she battled bulimia for decades due to stress and body image expectations. She was transparent about her struggle and determined to ensure other female players didn’t suffer the way she did. This led to her taking on the role of coach and body-positivity advocate to rising star Taylor Townsend. In 2012, Townsend at age 16 was the No.1 junior player in the world. She was headed to the U.S. Open when the United States Tennis Association pulled her funding and informed her team that she would continue to be denied until she lost weight. This caused controversy, as Townsend wasn’t ill in any way, and the weight didn’t affect her playing. Current and former players came out in support of her and criticized the USTA for undermining an adolescent player. They eventually reversed their position after mounting public pressure.

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka

Osaka captivated audiences with a dramatic 2018 U.S. Open victory over her idol Serena Williams. This triumph put Osaka under mounting pressure to remain the toughest competitor. She used that spotlight to draw attention to the recent shooting of Jacob Blake. Osaka withdrew from the Western and Southern Open in protest and continued to remind the public of the names of Black men unjustly murdered by police. The following year, she announced that she would not participate in any press conferences during the French Open to preserve her mental health. She was fined $15,000 and decided to withdraw from the tournament to avoid further scrutiny. Critics claimed she was behaving like a diva, but she hit back by explaining the importance of protecting and managing both her physical and mental health.

“In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there…it’s ok to not be ok, and it’s ok to talk about it. “

Cori “Coco” Gauff

Born in 2004, Gauff is the youngest player ranked in the top 100 by the Women’s Tennis Association. After being selected for the 2020 Olympics she used her newfound popularity to uplift the Black Lives Matter movement. Gauff went on to join Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in the “Racquets Down, Hands Up” campaign, which spread awareness about the unwarranted fatalities of Black people at the hands of law enforcement.

What these women were able to accomplish is extraordinary. Taking a stand in the face of discrimination is no small feat. Publicly pushing back against criticism can be empowering for everyone watching. It brings hope to those who are voiceless in similar scenarios, and models self-respect and justice for the next generation.