March is Women’s History Month, the ideal time to explore some of the remarkable stories of the women who have contributed to the growth and development of the sport throughout history. The modern-day version of tennis first gained traction among women in the late 1800's when the first major championships were held. Through the years, women's tennis has grown and thrived as a direct result of the many gutsy and creative women who have taken responsibility for pushing boundaries.
While tennis is an individual sport, it's interesting to note that more frequently than not, these determined women have not been solo acts, instead choosing to band together, to lean on each other, and to really push one another to take the sport to the next level. As Women’s History Month winds down, here’s a look at just a few great moments when some impressive women have stood in support of each other, changing the course of tennis history along the way.
^ Alice Marble & Althea Gibson. Photo: ITHF Collection
As A Champion for Fellow Players
In 1950, Alice Marble was a 36-year-old white woman who had 18 major titles on her resume, and was retired from competition for 10 years. Meanwhile, Althea Gibson was just 22 years old, a black woman with elite-level skills and results, but who was barred from the nation’s largest tournament, the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships. Despite the fact that the USLTA rules did prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, the reality was that the only way to gain admission to the tournament was by winning sanctioned tournaments, which were hosted at white-only tennis clubs--a policy that had no end in sight.
The two woman had never met, and seemingly lived in two very different worlds. In that day and age, it was quite possible their paths would never cross. However, spotting an injustice in the sport that she loved, Alice took it upon herself to shine a light on the prejudice that Althea was facing in her efforts to build a tennis career. In July 1950, Alice penned a strongly worded editorial that ran in American Lawn Tennis magazine, calling on the tennis industry to be a pioneer in fostering equality for all people, and specifically, to allow Althea the opportunity to compete.
Alice’s conviction and fearlessness in speaking out for another woman whom she didn’t know but she believed was being treated unfairly, directly resulted in a change to the course of tennis history, and was an early highlight of the social rights movement. That September, Althea was indeed invited to compete in the U.S. Nationals. She lost to Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion, in a second round match, but a bigger win was achieved that year. Backed by Alice Marble, Althea Gibson became the first person of color to compete in a major tournament. Six years later, she became the first person of color to become a major champion, winning singles and women's doubles titles at the 1956 French National championships. She went on to win 11 major titles overall, including singles victories at the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon.
As A Band of Trailblazers
The foundation of women’s pro tennis today is rooted firmly in the joining together of nine determined women and one visionary female leader. In 1970, just two years after the start of the Open Era, male players had seen their prize money earnings increase dramatically and the opportunity to make a living as professionals had become a reality. For women on the other hand, prize money was one-fifth (or less!) of the men’s earnings, and playing opportunities were far less widespread.
"We knew that to really have a future, we had to have a tour, or a series of tournaments," recalled Hall of Famer Billie Jean King. "We had no idea what was going to happen but we had the dream, the vision. We wanted every little girl in the world to have the opportunity to play and, if she was good enough, make a living from tennis."
And so, not only for their own benefit, but also for future generations of women, King banded together with eight other players and one fearless leader to take a stand. The Original 9, as the players would come to be known was comprised of King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, and Valerie Ziegenfuss. The nine woman signed $1 contracts with World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, to compete in one tournament. This event grew to become the Virginia Slims Circuit – a series of tournaments just for women, with strong prize money, television coverage, and solid sponsorship backing.
The women didn’t take this step without great risk. They made the move without the support of the USLTA, who threatened to ban them from future tournaments, including the US Open.
"We weren't sure about our destiny but we knew it was in our hands for the first time," King recalled.
Of course, the risk, backed by the determination of 10 brave women proved to be worthwhile. Within months, the Virginia Slims circuit grew from nine to forty members, ultimately paving the way for today’s WTA Tour.
As PARTNERS IN PHILANTHROPY
In 1968, nine-time major champion Maureen Connolly partnered with lifelong tennis player and eventual groundbreaking tennis promoter Nancy Jeffett to establish the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation (MCBTF). Bound by their love for the sport and their awareness of the opportunities it could provide, the two women set out with the goal of engaging more people with the sport, especially children and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In particular, they intended to provide funds for tennis clinics and to grant financial aid to juniors who could not afford to compete nationally.
Sadly, Connolly passed away just a year later, but Jeffett ensured that their original vision would live on. The organization, which continues to thrive today, has contributed millions of dollars to player development—from tennis programs in public parks to professional tournaments. A cornerstone of the foundation’s work was to create opportunities for promising young players. Over the years, MCBTF has staged numerous international junior competitions in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, creating opportunities for young players to gain vital competition experience. Some of today’s brightest stars have competed in the “Little Mo” events, including: Cici Bellis, Stefan Kozlov, and even Hall of Famer Andy Roddick.
Life on the road in a highly competitive, individual sport can certainly be isolating. However, many of women's tennis' most successful champions have found that a way to beat the loneliness is to not only see their peers as colleagues, but also as allies, partners, and even friends.
Despite being fiercely competitive on the court, two of the sport's all-time greatest players have maintained a special bond from their early days as competitors throughout their careers and beyond. From November 1975 through August 1987, it was either Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova in the No. 1 ranking for all but 23 weeks. Between the 1981 Australian Open and the 1987 US Open, at least one of them appeared in 24 consecutive major finals, and between them, won 21 of those titles. Navratilova led their head-to-head 43-37, and it was the closest head-to-head that Evert had with any of her key rivals. With records like that and the intensity with which they competed, it would not have been surprising if the two kept their distance. However, just the opposite was the case. As the last two remaining players at many tournaments, the pair have recalled how they would often have lunch together, practice together, and even travel to the next tournament together. A lesser known fact? They actually teamed up to win two major doubles titles together (1975 French Open and 1976 Wimbledon). The mutual respect that Chrissie and Martina had for each other enabled the two great champions to evolve from merely competitors into having a great friendship and providing tennis with one of its most dynamic rivalries of all time.
Great tennis women have also teamed up to make history on the same side of the net. Navratilova partnered with Pam Shriver to win 20 major doubles titles together - the sport's all time record, men or women, pre-Open Era (tied with Louise Brough and Margaret Osborne duPont) and Open Era. Their dominance throughout the 1980s was highlighted in 1984 when the pair won all four major titles. The fire and ice pairing of Puerto Rico's Gigi Fernández and Belarus' more reserved Natasha Zvereva may have seemed an unlikely match to find each other, but once they did, the duo was unstoppable. They won 14 major titles together, including six in a row from the French Open in 1992 through Wimbledon in 1993. Years later, the two reunited in Newport to enter the Hall of Fame together in 2010. Looking back further in time, supportive doubles pairings and competitors have been a hallmark of women's tennis since it's early days. In the 1940s and 1950s it was not uncommon for the women to play doubles together and then face each other in a singles match. For instance, Doris Hart and Shirley Fry teamed to win 11 major doubles titles together. In singles competition however, Doris defeated Shirley in two of their three meetings in major finals. It seems though it was all in the scope of a supportive relationship--off the court, Doris was godmother to Shirley's son.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Tennis is well-served by the notion that the next generation seem to be well on their way to following in the footsteps of these great women when it comes to building each other up. The doubles team of Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands generated a world-wide fan base through the fun energy and great success that they've exuded while playing together. We need to look no further than last year's US Open Women's Final to see that the next generation of history-makers intend to do so by supporting each other, as clearly evidenced by the mutual admiration and genuine congratulatory sentiments shared by Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys.
^ Hall of Famers Pam Shriver, Chris Evert, and Jane Brown Grimes celebrating at Jane's Enshrinement Weekend in 2014.