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Strong Competitors: Celebrating Women Throughout Tennis History

Posted by Elizabeth Kent Aug 8, 2012 , , ,

While on a vacation with my family this summer, a thunderstorm disrupted one of our anticipated days at the beach. So we sought shelter at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, Rhode Island. I went along reluctantly— “15-love” was a foreign term to me and I had never watched a game before.  However, I quickly learned during the tour that tennis is a sport revolutionized by women. This was an exhibit of women’s achievement and a celebration of diverse women’s history since the Victorian Era.

In 1874, Mary Ewing Outerbridge introduced lawn tennis to the United States. After playing a game with British friends in Bermuda, Outerbridge brought a set of rackets, balls, and a net back to her cricket club in Staten Island. She then organized the first game played in the US, and tennis quickly became a popular pastime among both American men and women.  Unlike other mainstream American sports like football and baseball, here was a sport where women were part of both the fun and competition, beginning right at its inception in the United States.

The peak of the development of tennis was during the Roaring Twenties. A whole room at the museum was dedicated to this prosperous time for women. A statue of French athlete Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen was featured in the center, alongside numerous magazine covers of her illustrating her popularity and accomplishments. At just 14 years old, Lenglen won the World Hard Court Championships establishing herself as a revolutionizing player. She also won the famed Wimbledon and French Open Championships six times each during her career. Along with Lenglen, a group of British, American, and French women became the first international female athletes to be revered as true icons for their talent. Lenglen was also the first woman to headline a professional tour, and her name brought thousands of spectators to matches. Women played in championships since the beginning of competitive tennis, but Lenglen rallied the respect and enthusiasm for women’s participation.

On August 22, 1950 (62 years ago today!), Althea Gibson became the first African American athlete, male or female, to participate at a US national tennis competition.  She is considered to be the “Jackie Robinson of Tennis.” Gibson won multiple singles and doubles championships at Wimbledon, the French Open, and US Open during the 1950s. In 1957, she was also the first African American to be honored as the Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. Gibson helped lead the way for future tennis players like Serena and Vanessa Williams, and, more broadly, for future African American athletes. Ultimately, she said, “I just wanted to play, play, play.”

There are many more stories featured at the International Tennis Hall of Fame that showcase women’s strength and determination. Even when sports in general were considered a man’s pastime, women made tennis their own; their success has surpassed men’s accomplishments. For example, Steffi Graf is the only person to win a golden slam, four major tournaments and an Olympic gold medal, in 1988. Legendary player, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs at the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973.

My afternoon at the International Tennis Hall of Fame introduced me and other visitors to a multitude of female triumphs in sport. I was pleasantly surprised that the exhibits focused equally on both genders’ accomplishments as well as Paralympic players’ successes. The women of tennis introduced the sport, broke the color barrier, set gender-neutral records, championed female athletics and more. Their history exemplifies women’s courage, tenacity, and talent.  After learning about this history, I am ready to pick up a racket and hit the court.

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