Thursday, February 05, 2009

Green Grass and Black History

(This is a reprint from 2007. The WIlliams sisters have won at every Wimbledon since.)

February is Black History Month, that once-a-year opportunity for white people to remind ourselves just how culturally sensitive we can be. So this year I wanted to avoid another culture-bound, Euro-centric tribute to Black America. And since Afro-American History seems offered up mostly for Caucasian consumption, I wanted to share a sliver of black culture that would actually give Black folks something (new) to contemplate, as well. As a tennis junkie, it wasn't hard to come up with the perfect example.

Did you know that Black Americans have triumphed on the lily-white lawns of Wimbledon sixteen times? Yes, that Wimbledon, a place so seeped in vanilla tradition that a white-clothing-only rule is still strictly enforced!

Althea Gibson won the first of her five titles in 1957. (see photo) Her achievement was all the more remarkable as she was the first player of either sex to to shatter the color barrier in international tennis. But it wasn't easy. According to,

She was the first black to play in the national indoor tournament in 1950 and finished second, which should have won her an invitation to the U. S. Nationals. No invitation came until after a letter from former champ Alice Marble appeared in the July issue of Tennis magazine. "If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it's only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts," she said.

She would go on the with the U.S. Open and become the #1 player in the world.

In 1975 Arthur Ashe reigned supreme at Wimbledon , along the way thumping world #1 Jimmy Connors who at the time was at the height of his lofty powers. To date, Arthur is the only black man to hoist the Wimbledon trophy. He is also the only Wimbledon champ ever to sport a (mini) Afro. After Arthur's death from AIDS complications in 1993, scholar and writer William Rhoden offered this tribute,
First and foremost Arthur Ashe was an activist. His vision was that athletes, especially African American athletes, would play a pivotal role in shaping a society in which they command an increasingly visible presence on the global landscape.
Much like baseball's Jackie Robinson, Gibson and Ashe will likely be remembered more for breaking barriers than for athletic accomplishments. Fast forward 20 years and things have definitely changed.
Venus and Serena Williams have dominated at Wimbledon for the past decade. Both Williams sisters clearly benefited from their predecessors Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson who struggled for just for acceptance.

Venus and Serena not obliged to fit in. Not when they can stand out instead. And their record is astonishing: 10 Wimbledons, 3 Olympic gold medals, and over $3o million in prize money between the pair. Add to that the $4o million Venus (pictured here after taking last year's title) was paid to wear Reebok and Serena's $30 million deal with Nike and it's clear that their stranglehold on women's tennis has earned them top dollar in the sports marketing world, too.

The Williams' influence extends beyond Center Court and Madison Avenue, however. All over American little black girls are taking up the sport. According to Tina Tharpe, Coordinator of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Academy in Philadelphia (and my former boss) girls comprise 70% of the Academy's enrollment. I reckon it'll be another dozen years before be know the legacy of the Williams Sisters. For now, they're still adding to their trophy case! At 25 (Serena) and 26, the sisters still should have time to add to their legacy--both on and off the court.

Sports has always been a good medium for advancing social causes. And when you consider that Black athletic progress has long been a step or two ahead of Black social progress, I think we can look at the successes of the Williams Sisters at Wimbledon and be kinda hopeful.
(Picture: Serena checkin' out the hardware)

Photos courtesy of the Wimbledon website.