Who championed the game of tennis to become African-American icons in that sport?

Several black athletes challenged segregation and broke racial barriers in tennis and at the same time became legends. Names such as Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, and sisters Venus and Serena Williams are popularly known in the sport, yet there are other pioneers. Arthur Ashe (1943–1993) was a pioneering sports hero and one of the most passionate and articulate sportsmen for minority athletes. He spent his entire career protesting unjust racial practices in the sporting world. In 1975 he became the first black man to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open—three of tennis’s Grand Slam events. Ashe was recognized as one of the world’s great tennis players. He is known also for his pioneering writings on black sports, especially for his multivolume work A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete (1993). A champion for social change, his untimely AIDS-related death raised the nation’s consciousness about the disease.

Women excelled in the sport of tennis as well. The first was Althea Gibson (1927–2003), who won her first title in 1956 when she won the French championship, and then triumphed in the women’s singles at Wimbledon in 1957 and again in 1958. Gibson also won the Wimbledon doubles in 1958. In 1957 and 1958, Gibson won the U.S. Open Women’s Singles title. She also became the first black woman to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour in 1964.

Before the Williams sisters—Serena and Venus—entered tennis competition, the world had already known Ora Washington (1898–1971), the first black woman to win seven consecutive titles in the American Tennis Association. Then in 1988, Zina Lynna Garrison (Jackson) (1963–), won gold in doubles and a bronze in singles in the Olympics held in Seoul, Korea, becoming the first black Olympic winner in tennis. Lori Michelle McNeil (1963–) defeated five-time Wimbledon champion and number-one ranked Steffi Graf in the first round of the Ladies Singles in 1994.

Althea Gibson was both a talented tennis player and a gifted golfer. In tennis, she was the first African American to break the color barrier and to win the Grand Slam.


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