Who were the most impactful women in tennis?

From November 25 to December 10, we celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Consider the past or even the present times, women have had faced a lot of discrimination and have been considered inferior to men in many ways. Though these things are lesser in modern days, they still persist.

In the 20th century such wrong doings against women were at their peak. Amidst all the tension, war and racism, the game of tennis saw women with fighting spirit who raised the bar of tennis’ standards. Here is a list of 8 of the most prominent fighting women.

Althea Gibson

Probably the greatest opponent that Althea Gibson faced in her career was racism. On her own she was one of the best female athletes in tennis before the start of the Open era. Initially, she had a liking towards basketball. After basketball, she became an ace at paddle tennis. It was only in 1940 when Gibson first picked up a tennis racquet. So ardently she fell in love with the sport that she won the tournament at American Tennis Association in 1944 and 1945 in the girls’ division.

In 1947, she won the ATA championships in the women’s category. Walter Johnson, who would later on coach Arthur Ashe, took Gibson under his shelter. In 1949, the world saw for the first time, an athlete of color to walk on the indoor courts of USTA. She broke the color barrier in Wimbledon for the first time in 1951. Althea Gibson was at her prime in 1956, 1957 and 1958. In 1957, she became the first black player to win the Wimbledon title and the first athlete to personally receive the trophy from the queen.

Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. After an impressive career which involved 11 grand slam titles of which six of them were doubles titles, Althea Gibson retired from the circuit in 1958.
“When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations. Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barriers once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped. Or if I did destroy them, they had been erected behind me again.”

Gibson realized that professional tennis was not making her financial ends meet. So she became a vocalist and a saxophonist. She became a golf player later on where she faced a lot of discrimination. Despite her several achievements and records in golf, she was denied to stay in hotels and clubhouses. Many times she had to change her clothes in the car before entering a tournament.

In late 1980s, Gibson suffered two cerebral haemorrhages. She had no money for the treatment. Now comes the part when tennis organizations showed their filthy nature. They refused to aid in her treatment when Athlea came for help. Angela Buxton, who was Gibson’s partner during her doubles grand slams titles helped her by raising $1 million by donations from around the world. Althea Gibson died in 2003 but left behind her a legacy which was the source of inspiration for the Williams sisters.

“I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”

Helen Wills Moody

From 1922 till 1932, there was one woman who dominated the game of tennis like no one else. Helen Wills Moody, winner of whooping 31 grand slam titles which involved singes, doubles and mixed doubles titles was the World No.1 for 9 long years. She was known to practice with men in order to improve her style of play. An introvert by nature, Helen was ironically the first American woman to have ties with royalty and film stars.  

Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman said, “Helen was really an unconfident and [socially] awkward girl—you have no idea how awkward…. I thought of Helen as an honestly shy person who was bewildered by how difficult it was to please most people.” In 1933, she defeated the 8th ranked male player at that time. From 1919 to 1938, Helen had the winning streak of 158 matches during which she did not lose a single set.  

“I had one thought and that was to put the ball across the net. I was simply myself, too deeply concentrated on the game for any extraneous thought.”

Nicknamed as “Little Miss Poker Face”, with the assistance of her powerful baseline game and serves which were mainly sliced, Helen became the first player in 1928 to win three grand slam titles in one year. Helen won 8 Wimbledon titles, a record which was later on surpassed by Martina Navratilova. Helen was so dominant at Wimbledon that she lost only one match out of her 56 matches that she played there.

Moody’s overall winning percentage was more than 90 thereby justifying her given title, “Queen Helen.” She won two Olympic gold medals during her reign. In 1998, Helen took her last breath. She inspired a lot of female tennis players over the years and is still considered as one of the greatest player that tennis ever produced.

“I love the feel of hitting the ball hard, the pleasure of a rally. It is these things that make tennis the delightful game that it is.”

Suzanne Lenglen

The first ever tennis celebrity was the ever flamboyant and graceful, Suzanne Lenglen. Not only in tennis, Lenglen was one of the first international sports stars. She won 341 matches and lost only 7. These matches helped her win 241 titles at a winning rate of 98%. The French Press nicknamed her, La Divine which is directly translated to “The Goddess.” During the outbreak of the first World War, Lenglen’s tennis career came to a halt; as it was believed.

To reconstruct the damaged areas of France during the war, Lenglen played exhibition matches and raised funds. She was the first woman to have broken stereotypes that prevailed at that time regarding women’s outfit. While the other female players wore an outfit that covered almost their entire body, Suzanne Langlen wore a dress which revealed her forearms and was also cut just above the calf. She was the first female tennis star to turn professional.

Lenglen was ranked World No.1 from 1921 to 1926. She won three Olympic medals, two gold medals and a bronze. One of the startling activities that Lenglen did on courts was to sip brandy in between the sets. In 1926 she became the last French woman to win the French Open until Amelie Mauresmo broke the jinx in 2006. The ladies trophy presented to the winner at the French Open is known as Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in her honor. The second court at Roland Garros is also named in her honor.

In 2001 the French Tennis Federation announced a tournament for player above the age of 35, the Suzanne Lenglen Cup. Lenglen suffered from a lot of diseases during her career. Chronic asthma and jaundice affected her career greatly. She was diagnosed with leukemia in 1938 and three weeks later, she went blind. A month later, she died of pernicious anemia. A player as graceful as Lenglen surely didn’t deserve such a brutal death. She left a legacy behind her, a trend setter and an inspiration for generations of female players.  

“She felt about a love set as a painter does about his masterpiece; each ace serve was a form of brushwork to her, and her fantastically accurate shot-placing was certainly a study in composition.” ― Janet Flanner

Ewonne Cawley

Ewonne Cawley is said to be the second woman to hold the top spot in the history of women’s tennis. She won 14 grand slam titles and is the only woman to win the French Open on first attempt. Belonging to the Australian Aboriginal family, Cawley faced a lot of discrimination in Australia at that time. She dominated the game in the 70s  Despite her dominance in grand slams at that time, she could never win the singles title at US Open. She reached the finals for four times in a row and is the only woman to do so. Though, this is not what she is famous for.

Ewonne Cawley became the first ever mother to win a grand slam title before World War I. She gave birth to a girl in 1977 and won the Wimbledon in 1980 which was just the second of her two Wimbledon titles, the first of which she won in 1971. Years later, in 2009, Kim Clijisters became just the second mother to win a grand slam title at the Flushing Meadows. The trophy given to the women’s champion at the Brisbane International is named in her honor. Victoria Azarenka has reached the most number of finals at Brisbane and won two of them. She is currently pregnant and off the circuit. Let’s hope she draws some inspiration and surprises us with a Vika Slam!

Maud Watson

In 1884, Wimbledon introduced the ladies’ singles championship. Dressed in white corsets and petticoats, Maud Watson became the first ever female to clinch the title at a tender age of 19. She defended her title in 1885. In 1886, Wimbledon introduced the challenge round, where Watson was defeated. She never returned to the courts of Wimbledon ever again. She retired in 1989. She also served as a nurse during the first World War and was honored as a “Member of the Order of the British Empire.”

Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman
Hazel Wightman was a visionary who dominated women’s tennis before World War I took place. She was short in stature and needed a tactic to counter her drawback of bearing a short height. As a result she became the first women to introduce volleying in women’s tennis. She won two Olympic gold medals and won 45 titles in her lifetime. When she won her last title, she was aged 68. She is known as “Lady Tennis” and “Queen Mother of American Tennis” as she played a key role in promoting women’s tennis.

Wightman was very keen in organizing a Davis Cup equivalent in women’s circuit. Her valiant efforts didn’t go in vain. A Ladies International Tennis Challenge was held between Britain and America’s women teams in 1923. This is more famously known as the Wightman Cup. The last edition of the tournament was played in 1989. Wightman was not only a successful player, but she was also an amazing coach. Helen Wills Moody, Helen Jacobs and Sarah Palfrey Cooke are some of the few women champions she tutored. In 1973, Wightman was appointed as Honorary Commander of the order of the British Empire.

Doris Hart
Doris Hart suffered from osteomyelitis as a child due to which she had a permanently impaired right leg. Despite her deformity, Doris Hart’s love for tennis never deterred. She used to see people of her age playing tennis in a nearby park. “I decided after my knee got well I would start playing tennis and become the best player possible.” But the infection was never treated. The doctors suggested amputation but Doris rejected it. She started playing tennis at the age of ten and by the time she turned 16, she was America’s top ten female tennis players.
“Never feel sorry for yourself. The only antidote for the poison of self-pity is faith, courage and patience.”

She became the first tennis player to have a career boxed set – winning every grand slam in the singles, doubles and mixed doubles category. She dominated the game in the late 40s and early 50s and was ranked No.1 in 1951. She also became the first player to win the triple crown in French Open in 1952 and US Open in 1954. Years later Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova became the next and last of the players to win a career boxed set.
“For her to do what she did was special because she couldn’t run as well as other people. And yet she had the smarts.”- Shirley Fry, Doris Hart’s doubles partner.
In 2004, Doris said she didn’t like the modern women’s tennis.

“There’s really not much strategy involved,” she said. “It’s not that appealing to watch, I don’t think.” 

Charlotte “Lottie” Dod

Lottie Dod was and still remains the youngest player to win the Wimbledon ladies’ title in 1887 at the age of 15. She went on to win the title for four more times, the last one coming in 1893. Lottie Dod was not only famous as a tennis player. She is said to be the most versatile female athlete by the Guniess Book of Records due to her achievements in archery, golf and field hockey. In the press, she was nicknamed “Little Wonder.”

In those days Lottie’s grip of the tennis racquet was considered to be orthodox. People now realize that Lottie’s grip is the same that modern tennis players use. She is also said to defeat Ernest Renshaw in an exhibition match. She also won a silver medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics. Tennis historians say Lottie never lost a Wimbledon match. She felt that women’s apparel should be such that it does not interfere with their tennis. Due to this ideology she wore a cap instead of a girly bonnet.

In 1960, Lottie Dod was listening to a radio commentary of Wimbledon while sitting at Birch Hill Nursing Home and had a fatal fall. Minutes after, she breathed her last, aged 88. 

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