The Serena Rules: Making Women’s Tennis Great Again
Tennis has expanded worldwide since its European origins and when it first was called tennis in the 16th century. Women’s amateur tennis had become popular in Europe with women being allowed to play at Wimbledon in 1884. Women became eligible to play in what is now known as the US Open in 1887 in Philadelphia. Rules for tennis had yet to become standardized, one rule that was consistent was that women of color need not apply.
Women’s professional tennis had its beginning in 1926–27 when two women (white) played a series of exhibitions. Once a player accepted money as a professional, they were unable to compete as an amateur and participate in the four major tournaments which didn’t accept professional players until 1968. Much like golf, tennis players generally had to have significant financial resources to progress in the game and the best players were typically found at country clubs as opposed to public parks.
Black America had its share of country clubs as well. In 1916, a group of black doctors, lawyers, and educators formed the American Tennis Association (ATA) for black tennis players. They held their first National Championship in 1917 in Baltimore, MD. By the 1930’s, over 100 black country clubs were members of the ATA. in 1946, a rough-edged, 19-year-old named Althea Gibson lost in the ATA National Finals after winning the Juniors title the previous two years. It was clear she had the talent to compete against the best white players, but there were two buts…
Althea didn’t have a high school degree and was accurately described as crude. Like Jackie Robinson being first in baseball, Althea would not only be representing herself but her entire race. Unlike baseball, the competitors in Women’s amateur tennis were the social elite and well-to-do. Althea was assisted by two doctor’s that were members of the ATA, Hubert Eaton, and R. Walter Johnson. They helped Althea to get her high school degree and she later attended Florida A&M University (FAMU). Her high school graduation ring was paid for by world boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson. To address her etiquette issues, she spent her high school years at the home of Dr. Eaton and summers at Dr. Johnson’s home. After winning several consecutive ATA tournaments, the governing body for white women’s tennis, the United States Ladies Tennis Association (USLTA) was pressured into accepting Althea into two tournaments where she reached the quarterfinals in each. She then attempted to enter the USLTA National Championships (which became the US Open) but was initially not permitted. She may never have gotten the chance had it not been for a letter from a top white player, Alice Marble, that was published in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine in 1950. That letter in its entirety is as follows:
“On my current lecture tours, the question I am most frequently expected to answer is no longer: What do you think of Gussie’s panties?
For every individual who still cares whether Gussie Moran has lace on her drawers, there are three who want to know if Althea Gibson will be permitted to play in the Nationals this year.
Not being privy to the sentiments of the USLTA committee, I couldn’t answer their questions, but I came back to New York determined to find out.
When I directed the question at a committee member of long standing, his answer, tacitly given, was in the negative.
Unless something within the realm of the supernatural occurs, Miss Gibson will not be permitted to play in the Nationals.
He said nothing of the sort, of course.
The attitude of the committee will be that Miss Gibson has not sufficiently proven herself.
True enough, she was a finalist in the National Indoors, the gentleman admitted — but didn’t I think the field was awfully poor?
I did not.
It is my opinion that Miss Gibson performed beautifully under the circumstances.
Considering how little play she has had in top competition, her win over a seasoned veteran like Midge Buck seems to me, a real triumph. Nevertheless the committee, according to this member, insists that in order to qualify for the Nationals, Miss Gibson must also make a strong showing in the major eastern tournaments to be played between now and the date set for the big do at Forest Hills.
Most of these major tournaments — Orange, East Hampton, Essex, etc. — are invitational, of course.
If she is not invited to participate in them, as my committee member freely predicted, then she obviously will not be able to prove anything at all, and it will be the reluctant duty of the committee to reject her entry at Forest Hills.
Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion.
I think it’s time we faced a few facts.
If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.
If there is anything left in the name of sportsmanship, it’s more than time to display what it means to us.
If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts, where tennis is played.
I know those girls, and I can’t think of one who would refuse to meet Miss Gibson in competition.
She might be soundly beaten for a while — but she has a much better chance on the courts than in the inner sanctum of the committee, where a different kind of game is played.”
I am beating no drums for Miss Gibson as a player of outstanding quality.
As I said, I have seen her only in the National Indoors, where she obviously did play her best and was still able to display some lovely shots.
To me, she is a fellow tennis player and, as such, deserving of the chance I had to prove myself.
I’ve never met Miss Gibson but, to me, she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.
Speaking for myself, I will be glad to help Althea Gibson in any way I can.
If I can improve her game or merely give her the benefit of my own experiences, as I have many other young players, I’ll do that.
If I can give her an iota more of confidence by rooting my heart out from the gallery, she can take my word for it: I’ll be there.”
Althea was allowed to enter the 1950 Nationals and after winning her first match, lost in three sets to a three-time Wimbledon champion. In her career, Althea went on to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals twice in a row, becoming the world’s best female player. In 1958 she retired from amateur tennis and went on to play professional golf. There she was faced with being unable to stay in some hotels in the South and not being allowed to compete in many tournaments across the country because she was black. The more things changed for Althea, the more things stayed the same.
On to Serena…
In another lifetime I had the opportunity to work at the US Open for several consecutive years. In 1999, New York City and the National Tennis Center, home of the two-year-old Arthur Ashe Stadium. The stadium was named after Ashe who was the winner of the first US Open in which professionals were allowed to compete against the amateurs. Ashe had died from cancer two years previously. In my years working there I had the opportunity to strike up a friendship with two former professional players now working with the Arthur Ashe Foundation one of whom was Leslie Allen, the first black woman to win a Major tournament since Althea Gibson. They discussed the Williams sisters, I remember one of them saying, “Venus has more power but Serena has the better footwork. Banners of Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister were all over not only the grounds but New York City. It was Serena who emerged champion after beating #1 ranked Martina Hingis. Serena became the second black woman to win a Grand Slam tournament after Gibson.
Tennis careers, particularly among the women are generally short brilliant flashes, followed by a quick fade. There are exceptions to be sure; Graf, Navratilova, Evert. But mostly they shine brightly… then disappear. Some of the young stars like Hingis and Tracy Austin, we barely got to know before they disappeared from view. If a champion emerged that wasn’t preferred by the powers that be, one need only wait and another would take her place. Serena established herself as the #1 player in the world, like Althea Gibson before her, and then stayed, and stayed, and stayed. There were high hopes for tall slim blondes like Maria Sharapova, who earned far more in endorsements. Serena took it out on her by beating her 18 consecutive times before withdrawing because of injury in a 2018 match. As badly as advertisers wanted to promote Sharapova, she was merely a very good tennis player with five Grand Slam titles. Her record against Serena in Grand Slam finals is 1–3 with her last victory in 2004, which triggered Serena’s victory streak.
Serena is a popular champion among the fans, but it seems the governing bodies of women’s tennis are ready to see her move on, letting tennis have a women's champion more to their liking. Finally getting to the special Serena rules suggested in the title:
- Serena had been drug tested more than any other competitor.
- She was told by French Open officials she wouldn’t be allowed to wear a “catsuit” specially designed to protect her from blood clots which almost killed her previously.
- In her most recent US Open match, her coach (whom Serena could not see) was cited for “coaching” which all coaches do regularly (including her opponent’s) but only Serena was penalized.
- Serena was penalized for verbal abuse for doing less than many men and women have done before her.
- She was criticized by a white male announcer who suggested it was, “her tone” which gets to the crux of the matter.
What Serena is guilty of is being strong, unapologetic, and better than the rest in her sport for far longer than expected and appreciated. When Barack Obama was elected the first African-American President of the United States. For all those who heralded that time as proof of how far America had come. There were also those who could not accept a black man in the Oval Office and worked to undermine all his accomplishments, electing a man to replace him who had only that agenda. There are those who are portraying Serena as the “angry black woman” in an attempt to detract from all she has done. During her supposed meltdown I witnessed the blackest thing I’ve seen a woman do on live television in my lifetime. Not the hand on her hip during the award presentation or the pointed finger in the direction of the referee. It was the genuine hug she gave to the winner Naomi Osaka (who is half-black though her Japanese heritage gets top billing) after her loss and putting her arm around her during the ceremony. It was neglecting her own pain to give comfort to another. That’s why Serena is still the greatest of all time, who’ll use this moment to propel her to more wins. While the powers that be keep hoping for another to dethrone her.