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Role models can change the course of your life –but what if nobody at the top looks like you? When someone succeeds in the face of adversity, exposing problems in the status quo, doors open for marginalized groups. It inspires others to hope and strive for more. Those role models represent pillars of confidence, creating space for the underrepresented. They provide us with the courage to break down barriers and become leaders because they inspire us to go beyond what we think is possible.  In women’s tennis, there are few Black players; however, Althea Gibson, Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka have sent powerful messages of positive representation which paves the way for others to reimagine themselves as something beyond what the limitations of the past have allowed.

Black and white photo of Althea Gibson holding a tennis racket
Althea Gibson by Fred Palumbo. Library of Congress. CC 2.0 via Flickr

The first tennis court in the U.S. was built in 1876, and by the 1890s, HBCUs such as Howard and Tuskegee offered tennis instruction to students. Soon after, United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) issued a policy statement barring Black tennis players from its competitions. As a response, the American Tennis Association (ATA), a tennis league that included Black players, was born. It took fifty years of prodding by the ATA and a woman named Althea Gibson whose talent and hard work could not be denied, for the USLTA to accept her application as the first Black tennis player to compete in the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills.

Althea Gibson was the player to beat between 1956-58 with skills that demanded recognition. Gibson was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957 and 1958. In total, she won 56 singles and doubles titles including 11 Grand Slam tournaments. Gibson went on tour and traveled the world as a professional tennis player. A true pioneer, Gibson began to integrate the sport of tennis in the U.S. by demanding entrance to the arena and equality on the court. Gibson made it possible for future generations of Black players to compete.

Serena and Venus Williams on tennis court
Serena and Venus Willams by Edwin Martinez from The Bronx, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Forty years after Gibson’s Grand Slam, Serena Williams became the second Black woman to win a Grand Slam. One of the world’s most elite athletes, Serena is a household name. To date, she holds 73 wins including 23 Grand Slam titles. Building on Gibson’s work for equality, Williams advocated for equal pay and protection to the rankings of women who return to the tour after giving birth or have been absent due to injury. Equal pay and maternity leave seem like fundamental rights in 2018, yet Williams had to fight to get them. By demanding more than the bare minimum of entrance into the game, Williams is a leader in women’s equity in tennis.

Naomi Osaka mid-serve in a tennis match
Naomi Osaka by Rob Keating from Canberra, Australia, Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Naomi Osaka, who credits Williams with inspiring her to pick up a racket, has become the “face of the future” for women’s tennis. Osaka beat Williams in 2018 catapulting her into the spotlight. The four-time Grand Slam champion is well known for prioritizing mental health over the game. Osaka withdrew from the French Open, rather than participate in the post-match media briefings stating mental health reasons. This sparked a debate about the culture of post-match briefings and their impact on athletes’ mental health. Osaka’s advocacy for her well-being was the subject of scrutiny, but it also was the pebble that caused a ripple of change. Sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz said, “There is this stereotype that an athlete is a kind of gladiator, a kind of hero. That they are comfortable being out of their comfort zones. And it makes it pretty much impossible for athletes not to be OK.”[1] Without the work of Gibson and Williams, there would not be space for athletes like Osaka to prioritize mental health and challenge the status quo.

Althea Gibson, Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka positively changed the game of tennis, not just for Black women, but for all women. By extending entry to Black players, demanding equal pay, maternity leave, and stressing the importance of mental health, these three brilliant athletes, challenged the status quo of a sport that did not welcome them with open arms. Fighting for equity, and building off the work of each other, not only did they change the game of tennis, but they also inspired future generations on and off the court to demand more.

This is the power of representation.

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/01/tennis/naomi-osaka-sport-mental-health-cmd-spt-intl/index.html

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