Aces: 8 Times the Tennis World Helped Serve Social Progress

BY Sam Laird Bank of the West

Mar 5th 2022

Katrina Adams didn’t set out to become a tennis legend. She actually stumbled upon the sport by accident.

It was the mid-1970s. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boys & Girls Club was holding a summer tennis program on Chicago’s West Side. Adams’ older brothers joined. Despite being too young for the program, she “tagged along,” mostly for want of something to do with school out of session.

“I had no idea what tennis was, where it could go, or what it meant,” Adams says today of her six-year-old self.

Then something unexpected happened: That tagalong little sister looking for summer fun grew up to make history several times over. She turned out to have eyebrow-raising talent for a six-year-old novice. She practiced and trained, became a dominant high school player, then starred at Northwestern University before enjoying a long professional career in and around the sport. Here’s a brief list of Adams’ accomplishments and firsts:

  • 20 career doubles titles on the WTA Tour from 1988 to 1999
  • First Black commentator on the Tennis Channel in 2003
  • Only Black woman to lead the United States Tennis Association as president, chairman and CEO from 2015 to 2018; the 135-year-old organization is the governing body of tennis in the U.S.

As a Black woman who excelled on the court and broke new ground on the sport’s business side, Adams also possesses a unique view into the role tennis has played in reflecting—and driving—broader social progress. But her journey wasn’t always easy. Decades after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and decades before Colin Kaepernick took a knee before NFL kickoffs, Adams experienced firsthand how race and gender can be policed in the sports world and society at large.

Adams recalls, as a rising player, “walking inside the clubhouse or going toward the locker room, but people look at you and assume you don’t have access because surely you’re not a player in this tournament.” And as a businesswoman? “I knew that I had to be twice as good or three times as good to make sure that I had full respect from my peers and colleagues and to make sure that I was being heard,” she says.

“You have to be one in the room in order to get two or three in the room. We have to start somewhere.

—Katrina Adams

The title of Adams’ 2021 book smartly summarizes her challenges and successes. It’s called Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One. For Adams, the ultimate goal is to not be “the only one” for long.

“You have to be one in the room in order to get two or three in the room,” she says. “We have to start somewhere. So if I’m that leader that has the potential to reach back and pull forward, I welcome that opportunity and challenge.”

Individual action for collective good is a thread that runs through the past several decades of tennis history. Adams cites the groundbreaking Black women’s tennis star Althea Gibson and the all-around activist Billie Jean King among the leaders she admires most from the sport’s past. Gibson, she says, “was the champion who opened that door” for other Black players to later walk through. King, she says, inspires “people to be proud of who they are, where they come from, and what they stand for. She has truly been our leader on all those different levels for the past 50 years.”

All-too-recent incidents of prejudice, as well as issues around equity at the junior levels, illustrate that the tennis world still has work to do. But as a global sport played by men and women—sometimes at the same time in mixed doubles events—Adams believes tennis is uniquely positioned to expand its role in driving social progress.

Many have followed in Gibson and King’s footsteps, blazing trails of their own. And, as Adams sees it, more and more leaders will emerge in the years to come.

“As individuals in our sport, we’re about being confident and proud of who we are, and working hard and representing,” Adams says. “I think we will continue to have leaders in our sport who will continue to speak out on these issues, focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion—not just on the court but also in the business realm.”

With Adams’ story in mind, here’s a look back at eight times tennis helped push social progress—from Gibson and King on through Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and more.

8 Times Tennis Helped Push Social Progress

The person: Althea Gibson
The story: Born in South Carolina in 1927, then raised in Harlem, Gibson broke the color barrier in elite tennis despite enduring cruelty and racism from white crowds. And she excelled. Gibson won 11 major titles between 1956 and 1958, and became the first Black athlete to appear on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated. And if all that wasn't enough? In 1960, Gibson became the first Black person to compete on the women's professional golf tour.
Why it matters: Gibson made sports history as both a Black person and a woman before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed—and in the process she widened the aperture of what felt attainable in the world beyond athletics.
Testimonial: “Althea reoriented the world and changed our perceptions of what is possible. We are still struggling. But she broke the ground." —Sculptor Eric Goulder, who created a statue of Gibson, in 2019
The person: Billie Jean King
The story: A powerhouse on and off the court, King's impact is difficult to quantify. But these two achievements give an idea: In 1990 Life magazine named her one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century," and in 2009 President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. King's impact extends far beyond her 39 major titles or the widely known “Battle of the Sexes" match of 1973, in which she defeated men's tennis legend Bobby Riggs. She also became the first woman athlete to earn $100,000 in a single year, founded the Women's Tennis Association, became an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, and has tirelessly championed the rights of other groups as well. Whew! The list goes on but we'll stop there for now.
Why it matters: King, who remains outspoken, is one of the few sports legends whose work on social issues rivals their Hall of Fame exploits inside the lines.
Testimonial: “She was a champion on the court. She was a pioneer off the court." – International Tennis Federation President David Haggerty, in 2020
The person: Arthur Ashe
The story: How does a boy born in the segregated South and descended from slaves grow up to become one of the most resonant names in sports history? Arthur Ashe did it by epitomizing class in all facets of life. Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, before earning a tennis scholarship at UCLA. Powered by a tremendous serve, he became the first—and still remains the only—Black man to win singles titles at the US Open (1968), Australian Open (1970), and Wimbledon (1975). Off the court, Ashe was stylish and had a strong social conscious; he actively campaigned against South Africa's apartheid, helped unionize pro-tour tennis players, wrote a long history of Black athletes in America, and created tennis programs for inner-city youth. Ashe died in 1993 of AIDS-related complications.
Why it matters: Ashe broke barriers in tennis, and his activism made him a prototype for future athletes who used their sports fame to influence social issues.
Testimonial: “He was an ambassador of what was right. He was an ambassador of dignity. He was an ambassador of class." —Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, in an HBO documentary on Ashe

2005 Arthur Ashe United States stamp.

The person: Martina Navratilova
The story: In 1975, an 18-year-old Navratilova traveled from communist Czechoslovakia to New York City for the US Open. After losing in the semifinals, she defected from her native country (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) to seek asylum in the US. Thus launched a career marked equally by tennis dominance, political outspokenness, and social activism. Navratilova the player won a stunning 59 major titles across singles and doubles events and is universally regarded as one of the greatest players—man or woman—in tennis history. Navratilova the activist is just as impressive. In 1981, she became the first world-famous athlete to come out by choice. That embarked her on a lifelong quest for LGTBQ+ rights, while she's also lent her support to equality in other realms.
Why it matters: As probably the most accomplished openly gay athlete of all-time, Navratilova holds a singular place in history.
Testimonial: “Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar. She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn't have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am." —Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, to ESPN in 1999
The people: Venus and Serena Williams
The story: Trained as girls in Compton, California, by a visionary and demanding father. Achieving top-level success for more than two decades, with enough major titles and Olympics medals to fill a swimming pool. Signifying Black excellence and representation with every serve. You don't have to be a tennis fan to know the broad strokes of the Williams sisters' story—and that's exactly the point. The New York Times in 2015 called Venus and Serena “the most impactful siblings in the history of professional sports." For a couple of Black girls from the inner-city competing in tennis—a game that's still largely white and associated with money and privilege—that designation is significant well beyond sports.
Why it matters: Perhaps this says it best—black women tennis pros from Sloane Stephens to Taylor Townsend have cited Venus and Serena as inspiring figures who helped fuel their own passions for the sport.
Testimonial: “Because of their success and charisma and because they come from Compton and got so much publicity—and this is not just in the United States—they made people know that anyone that comes from anywhere, rich nor not, can play and be successful." —Coach Patrick Mouratoglou, in 2015
The people: The global tennis community
The story: When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in 2020 following a string of police killings of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd in May of that year, the tennis world did not stay silent. Players including Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, and Frances Tiafoe donned masks supporting the movement at the US Open, while a host of players including Andy MurraySerena Williams, and Coco Gauff used their platforms to promote equal justice via public statements and social media posts.
Why it matters: While NBA and professional soccer players also made news for supporting Black lives, having tennis players of various races and nationalities add their voices sent a strong message that equal justice should matter to everyone.
Testimonial: “We can't just say we did our part and move on from there. It's like, no, something has to be done. We don't just turn our backs and walk away now. We've got to take the next step forward." —Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic to ESPN in 2020
The person: Naomi Osaka
The story: Osaka, one of the brightest young stars in tennis, shocked the world when she withdrew from the 2021 French Open to focus on her mental health. She also opened up about having faced bouts of depression in her past, and penned a piece for Time magazine in which she wrote that “It's OK not to be OK." Amid a global pandemic and widespread social unrest, Osaka's stand for mental health resonated across the world. She has since returned to competition, and continues to be an advocate on the issue.
Why it matters: Along with other famous athletes including swimmer Michael Phelps, Osaka has helped normalize conversations around mental health and self-care for society at large.
Testimonial: “If you type in 'athlete depression,' you're going to find the best athletes in the world being vulnerable and sharing what they've been through. That is a huge difference. It says that you can be an elite athlete—the best in the world—and you can still experience anxiety." —Former USC volleyball player Victoria Garrick, in 2021
The people: Steve Simon and the Women's Tennis Association
The story: In November 2021, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a high-ranking Chinese political official of sexual assault. Then she disappeared from public view for weeks, sparking concerns for her safety in an authoritarian state known to harshly punish dissident views. The situation also prompted another question: Would the tennis world stand up for one of its own, or look the other way to continue profiting from a lucrative Chinese market? The Women's Tennis Association, an organizing body for the women's side of the sport, took a firm stance. President Steve Simon announced the suspension of all tournaments in China; that suspension remains in effect. Shuai has since been seen in public but significant questions remain about her freedom and well-being.
Why it matters: At a time when profit and growth can sometimes seem to be the only things that matters in many sectors, the Women's Tennis Association, in the spirit of its founder Billie Jean King, provided a strong example of leading with character.
Testimonial: “Simon's refusal to accept China's authoritarian stance on human rights once it directly affected one of his players stands in stark contrast to several high-profile leaders in sports who have repeatedly bent to the desires of the Chinese." – The New York Times in 2021
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