Naomi Osaka Picks Up the Baton: The Trailblazing History of Women’s Tennis


As her opponent jettisoned a final backhand into the net, Naomi Osaka let out a guttural roar of delight - “COME ON!” - puffed her cheeks, and stared towards the heavens. Two years on from her first Grand Slam triumph at Flushing Meadows, the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Osaka’s 2018 victory was marred by a dispute between umpire Carlos Ramos and Serena Williams, backed by 23,000 partisans whose jeering cacophonied across Arthur Ashe Stadium. The then 20-year-old was reduced to tears on the podium in the mistaken belief that the crowd’s venom was directed at her. This year, with the championship played behind closed doors, athletes and entourages grouped in a pandemic-resistant bubble, Osaka’s jubilation reverberated across empty stands. As the champion made her traditional Japanese bow and racquet tap with the runner-up, Victoria Azarenka, a discordant blast of pop music blared through the arena. The atmosphere more closely resembled a challenger event in a small European city than the final of the US Open.

But make no mistake: this was a victory - her third Major title - won on Naomi Osaka’s own terms. She demonstrated immense mental fortitude to overcome nerves, sluggishness and inspired opposition. Victoria Azarenka barely played a match in the 12 months prior to August 2020 yet, from nowhere, sustained a winning streak of 11. She won the title in the “Cincinnati” warm-up tournament (actually held in the New York Covid-secure bubble) and vanquished Serena Williams in the US Open semis, foiling again her mission to tie Margaret Court for a record 24 Major titles. To a score of 6-1, 2-0, in the final, Azarenka played practically perfectly. She missed one first serve in the opening set. As ever, Osaka was refreshingly blunt in explaining how she overturned the deficit: she just wanted the match to last over an hour. But the Japanese possesses that unfathomable champion's switch, whereby she can just decide to play better. The precise attacking tennis, huge serve and serpentine movement which propelled her to the final returned as Osaka overturned the deficit: 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Lying down on the court after her triumph - a move she had deliberately avoided in the heat of the moment so as not to injure herself - Osaka surely reflected on the astonishing personal transformation she has undergone since September 2018. A natural introvert, the 22-year-old is the first to acknowledge that she was mentally scrambled by the media attention and pressure of expectation which came with her back-to-back Grand Slam titles and ascent to the No.1 ranking. After winning the 2019 Australian Open, she was ‘tense the entire time’ prior to her 3rd round exit at Roland Garros, lost in the 1st round of Wimbledon and then the 4th round at the US Open. Osaka reflected through social media on her ‘sadness’: simultaneously an international sensation earning the most of any female athlete on the globe, yet unable to ply her trade with any sense of enjoyment or freedom. She reached a further professional nadir in her error-strewn defeat to 15-year-old Coco Gauff at this year’s Australian Open.

I doubt that many people were grateful to watch the Covid-19 pandemic bulldoze their plans, threaten their health and disrupt their livelihoods. Yet Naomi Osaka used the nearly five months of virtual house arrest to order her priorities beyond the punishing, relentless tennis circuit:

I’ve re-evaluated what’s actually important in my life. It’s a reset that perhaps I greatly needed. I asked myself, “If I couldn’t play tennis, what could I be doing to make a difference?” I decided it was time to speak up.[1]

Osaka, a Black woman of Haitian-Japanese ethnicity, living in Los Angeles, quashed her shyness in turning her platform to the cause of social and political activism. Like so many, she was horrified to view footage of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin on 25th May and felt a ‘call to action’. Promoting antiracist, consciousness-raising materials through social media, the World No.10 returned to the WTA Tour in August with a renewed perspective that many multimillionaire athletes so easily forget: her tennis can be a battle for something greater than herself. During the “Cincinnati” tournament, Jacob Blake was shot seven times and paralysed from the waist down by police following a domestic incident in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Osaka “spoke up" by withdrawing from her semifinal against Elise Mertens. Both WTA and ATP tournaments responded with a 24-hour stoppage to draw attention to Black Lives Matter and police violence in the United States. It was working.

Two weeks later, Naomi Osaka lifted the trophy at the US Open. For each of her seven matches, she displayed on her Covid-19 face mask the name of an African American murdered by police, whose family is yet to secure justice:

Round 1. Breonna Taylor, 26, was shot six times on 13th March by three white police officers who entered the Louisville, Kentucky apartment she shared with her boyfriend, on a specious drugs-related raid. They held a contentious “no knock” warrant to enter the building. Six months later - this Wednesday - one of the policemen, Brett Hankison, was charged: not for Taylor’s murder, but for ‘wanton endangerment’ (that is to say, for the bullets that missed).

Round 2. Elijah McClain, 23, was placed in a chokehold by police and sedated with an injection of 500mg of ketamine in Denver, Colorado on 24th August 2019, having been mistaken for a “suspicious person”. He died in hospital three days later. While the chokehold used on McClain has been banned, the three white policeman involved in his death remain uncharged.

Round 3. Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot for the offence of jogging while black - unarmed - in Glynn County, Georgia on 26th February. He was pursued by car and killed by three white men, who claimed he resembled the suspect of a series of local break-ins. They called Arbery racial slurs while he bled to death. It took police 74 days to convict the men of first-degree murder, in what Arbery’s family describe as a cover-up.

Round 4. Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed for the offence of walking while black in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012. His murderer, “neighbourhood watchman” George Zimmerman, was acquitted of all charges by a grand jury the following year; he claimed the right to deadly force in self-defence under Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law. Zimmerman remains a free man.

Quarterfinal. George Floyd, 46, was handcuffed for alleged use of a counterfeit bill at a store in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 25th May. White police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him in the process. Bystanders recorded the footage on camera. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder (upgraded from third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter), and the three police officers accompanying him with aiding and abetting.

Semifinal. Philando Castile, 32, was killed at a traffic stop with his partner and four-year old daughter in the vehicle by Hispanic police officer Jeronimo Yanez, in St. Anthony, Minnesota in July 2016. Yanez shot Castile five times at close range, allegedly believing that Castile was reaching for a firearm. Yanez was fired but acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in a jury trial in June 2017. Castile’s family settled with the City of St. Anthony but Yanez - who received a $48,500 severance package - remains free.

Final. Tamir Rice, 12, was shot by white police officer Timothy Loehmann for carrying a replica toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio in November 2014. The dispatch call handler failed to disclose information that the gun was ‘probably fake’ and carried by a juvenile. Loehmann killed Rice almost immediately upon arrival at the scene. A grand jury judged the gun to appear real on police surveillance, so Loehmann was not charged. He was later fired in 2017 for failing to disclose himself as emotionally unstable and unfit for duty in his previous police position. Rice’s family settled for $6 million out of court.

Osaka’s activism was bold, risky, and fastidiously calculated. By wearing the names on her mask, television networks had no option but to engage and ask questions. The issue of systemic racial injustice was beamed across the world by its premier female athlete.

After the final, interviewer Tom Rinaldi asked, ‘What was the message you wanted to send?’
Osaka replied, with a spontaneity belying her deliberateness, ‘Well, what was the message that you got?’

* * *

Osaka’s activism at the forefront of women’s sport both owes itself and pays homage to the actions of nine tennis trailblazers in September 1970. Fifty years ago this week, tennis promoter Gladys Heldman led the “Original Nine” to a breakaway women’s tournament held at Houston, Texas, in protest against the rapidly diverging prize money on the professional tour. These women gambled their careers in the conviction that women’s tennis could provide equal star power, entertainment and remuneration to the men’s game. Heldman’s success led to the formalisation of the Virginia Slims circuit and the foundation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973. In September of that year, the watershed “Battle of the Sexes” match, in which Billie Jean King soundly defeated has-been former No.1 Bobby Riggs, proved definitively the physical and mental prowess of female athletes. The Original Nine, with King at its helm, and their successors, from Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to Venus and Serena Williams, have sustained women’s tennis as a site for socio-political change in the arenas of gender, sexuality, economics and now most prominently race.

Billie Jean King has long declared that the responsibility of the “Founders” generation - itself building on the legacies of Suzanne Lenglen, Althea Gibson and Ann Haydon Jones before them - is to ensure that each generation keeps passing the baton of social activism. In an inherently individualistic, commercialised sport, there are surely periods in which this baton has been dropped. However, the pandemic layoff has exposed, enlivened or reinvigorated a generation of change makers - now led by Osaka - willing to speak out and employ the tools of protest. The world is taking notice.

The Original Nine with their $1 contracts. From:

From left to right, Back row: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz.
Seated: Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman and Kristy Pigeon.

The origins and legacy of the Original Nine

In her recent book, Social Activism in Women’s Tennis, sociologist and former WTA player Kristi Tredway divides the history of feminism within the women’s game into instructive generational cohorts. While feminism is not the only legacy of the activism of the Original Nine that I wish to stress, it is inherent in every fight undertaken by female players since the Virginia Slims tour was established in 1970, and indeed before.

We must go back to the 1920s to acknowledge the first player - arguably, the first female sporting celebrity - to revolutionise the practice of women’s tennis. Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen was an eight-time Grand Slam champion between 1919 and 1926, famed for her bold, all-court style of play and gregarious personality. Prior to Lenglen, female players were still expected to wear corsets and appear gentle while playing; she threw out the rulebook, dived across the court, contested line calls and even took to drinking cognac during matches. Characterised by her “bandeau” (headband), a style copied by millions, Lenglen was a sell-out inspiration who proved women could hold their own in a sports arena. Like the best players of her generation however - male and female - she could not sustain a living unpaid on the amateur circuit where the most prestigious Grand Slam titles were to be won. Aged 27, Lenglen turned professional in 1926 to the censure of the tennis establishment; her membership of the All England Club and French Tennis Federation were revoked. Lenglen bit back:

Under these absurd and antiquated amateur rulings, only a wealthy person can compete, and the fact of the matter is that only wealthy people do compete. Is that fair? Does it advance the sport? Does it make tennis more popular – or does it tend to suppress and hinder an enormous amount of tennis talent lying dormant in the bodies of young men and women whose names are not in the social register?[2]

Tredway identifies Suzanne Lenglen as one of three “Trailblazers” who drew attention to the issue of women ‘making a fair livelihood in women’s tennis’.[3] The second, Althea Gibson, demonstrates the significance of intersectionality to this analysis: she faced the double bind of being an African American female in a gentleman’s game. Raised in Harlem, Gibson won ten straight titles at the American Tennis Association (ATA) National Championships from 1947, mentored by Dr. Walter Johnson of Virginia, who would later coach Arthur Ashe to Grand Slam titles. However, Gibson was unable to compete in more prestigious tournaments on the US Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA, later USTA) circuit, and play at the US Open, since the ranking points required to qualify were gained through participation at tournaments held in white-only clubs. In 1950, Gibson’s plight was recognised by four-time (white) US Open champion Alice Marble, who wrote to American Lawn Tennis magazine, in an example of her own activism:

If tennis is a sport for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites… If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge…[4]

With an ally in a player of Marble’s repute, Gibson was the first Black player to receive an invitation to the Open; she was dubbed the Jackie Robinson of tennis. Supremely confident in her attacking, net-rushing game, Gibson won the French Open in 1956, and Wimbledon and the US Open, back-to-back, in 1957 and 1958. The first of her Wimbledon titles was presented by Queen Elizabeth II: a long way, in Gibson’s words, ‘from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus’.[5] Gibson retired from amateur tennis in 1958, like Lenglen, to seek professional remuneration. She took State Department-sponsored trips to Asia and Africa and played exhibition matches with the Harlem Globetrotters. Yet little had changed since her first ATA title in 1947: ‘I am still a poor Negress… I am much richer in knowledge and experience. But I have no money.’[6] From 1963, she began a professional golf career, playing in 171 LPGA events until her retirement, aged 50, in 1977; her total earnings were just $24,437.[7] Gibson spent her later years in tennis coaching - in 1976, she was also appointed New Jersey's athletic commissioner - but remains largely unrecognised for the scale of her achievements in the sport.

It was not until 1968 that the ‘absurd and antiquated amateur rulings’ were finally lifted, and tennis became “Open”: that is, Grand Slam tournaments allowed professional players to compete with amateurs. But the prize money was unequal from the start. The third of Tredway’s “Trailblazers”, three-time Grand Slam champion Ann Haydon Jones, boycotted the first open tournament in Bournemouth, where the male champion took home $2,400 compared to the female champion’s $720. The Brit warned that ‘The whole of the men’s game is expanding, and the women must not be left behind’.[8] Jones’ British peers, Virginia Wade, Christine Truman and Angela Barrett, had threatened to join her, but backed out at the eleventh hour. Thus, despite being the world’s No.2 player, Jones was largely ignored as a lone rebel, reinforcing Tredway’s conviction that powerful social activism must be achieved in numbers. After winning Wimbledon in 1969, she practically retired but remained a role model for, and supporter of, the Original Nine.

* * *

By 1970, it appeared that Ann Haydon Jones’ fears had been imagined. From a 2.5:1 prize money difference at Wimbledon 1968, 5:1, 8:1 and greater ratios in favour of male players were becoming the norm on the joint Grand Prix circuit. With the support of World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, who staged three women’s only tournaments in winter 1969, several female players considered a symbolic walkout before these grotesque ratios became the norm. The watershed moment came at the US Open, with the announcement that Jack Kramer’s prestigious Pacific Southwest Championships, held in Los Angeles, would be offering an 8:1 prize money ratio in favour of men. Heldman proposed a breakaway invitational tournament with $5,000 in prize money to be held in Houston, to boycott Kramer’s event. Speaking to friends in high places, Kramer threatened that the USLTA would suspend any rebel players and reserve the right to prevent them playing Wightman Cup, Fed Cup and Grand Slams. (Potential rebels from Australia would be banned from playing in their home country and even using Australian-made racquets according to Judy Dalton.)[9] The USLTA’s compromise alternative was to allow the boycotters to play Heldman’s event in Houston as amateurs, but with a $7,500 prize pot under the table. It was an unenviable choice.

The “Original Nine” female players - Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville Reid, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss - placed their careers on the line to take Heldman’s offer. Each signed a $1, one-week contract to play in the Houston Women’s Invitation, held between 23rd and 26th September 1970. Ultimately, principle trumped the risks involved. The nine drew on the goals of the wider women’s liberation movement (styled in tennis circles as “women’s lob”) to demand equal pay for equal work and a tennis tour offering a viable livelihood for women. Beyond principle, their strengths were numerical, reputational (King was the world No.2; Dalton had won all four Grand Slam doubles titles; Richey was a two-time Slam singles champion) and arguably geographical: Casals, Heldman, King, Pigeon, Richey and Ziegenfuss grew up or were educated on the liberal California coast and experienced the countercultural movements of the 1960s firsthand. They also benefitted from the sponsorship of Joseph Cullman, a Heldman family friend and chairman of the tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris. While the promotion of cigarettes was an unfortunate look for a professional women’s sports tour, Tredway emphasises the progressive credentials of Philip Morris as an early equal opportunity employer. Cullman was a tennis nut, eager to top up the prize money at the Houston Invitational to $7,500.[10]

For playing Heldman’s epochal event - which was won by Casals - the USLTA implemented their threat to suspend the Original Nine. However, the tournament director of the next tournament on the Grand Prix circuit, in San Diego, called Heldman and assented to her demands for an equal women’s prize fund of $11,000: over five times his planned amount. The Original Nine realised the power - in lost revenue, advertisements, and television ratings - of their boycott. A few weeks later, so did the USLTA, rescinding their suspension. In the longer term, Heldman and Cullman capitalised on the attention and profit to be gained from a multiple-event women’s only circuit, satisfying the goals of “women’s lob” and, for Philip Morris tobacconists, exploiting a new market through advertisement of the streamlined, feminine Virginia Slims cigarette.

The Virginia Slims tour was born with a 21 tournament circuit in 1971, which offered a prize purse of around $336,000, in addition to which participants could still play the Grand Slams and team competitions. Billie Jean King became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in that year.[11] While 64 players had signed up to compete by the end of 1970, the male establishment continued to smart from the Original Nine’s rebellion. The USLTA mounted a rival women’s circuit on the star power of Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert and Virginia Wade. Ultimately it required the full-time commitment of King and others to promote the Virginia Slims circuit - in addition to competing as a professional athletes - and overcome the USLTA’s obstacles.

While her celebrity has come to overshadow the other eight members of the Original Nine, Billie Jean King was the driving force of social activism within the sport during the early 1970s. In September 1972, Jack Kramer, Donald Dell and Cliff Drysdale founded the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), a male-only players organisation which threatened once again to suck the oxygen from women’s tennis. Disappointingly for the cause of intersectional activism, Arthur Ashe served as the ATP Player-President and scorned the notion of equal prize money, given the lack of female “box office appeal”. King, cognisant of the need to present a united front, organised a player meeting at the Gloucester Hotel in London, on the eve of Wimbledon 1973, to agree the women’s response. With big-hitting Dutchwoman Betty Stöve blocking the doors until a settlement was reached, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was born, and - in a surprising volte-face which immediately dispelled Ashe’s argument - the USLTA agreed that equal prize money would be awarded at the US Open for the first time. The player solidarity created by the WTA forced the tennis establishment to take notice.

Nevertheless, the notion that a woman could be as mentally and physically tough as a man on the tennis court continued to be questioned. The 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, former men’s No.1 turned celebrity hustler (and self-described ‘male chauvinist pig’) disputed that any female player could be competitive with him. He challenged the No.1 female player, Margaret Court, to a publicity stunt: a “Battle of the Sexes” in May 1973. In what was dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre”, Riggs’ bravado turned up trumps and he steamrolled Court, 6-2, 6-1. The gambler was not finished, however. He set his sights on the greater scalp of women’s libber Billie Jean King. Then ranked No.2, King was naturally desperate to bury the issue, given its potentially ruinous impact on the nascent WTA Tour. A Battle of the Sexes far more spectacular, indulgent (receiving primetime billing) and meaningful than the Riggs-Court match was arranged at the Houston Aerodrome on 20th September 1973, with a prize pot of $100,000.

The 2017 film, Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, captures the stakes of the 1973 exhibition. While Carell is too likeable to pull off Riggs - who had a clear malevolent streak - Bill Pullman is odious as Jack Kramer, a pillar of the establishment who set out to foil King’s activism at every turn, including his refusal to step down from commentating for ABC on the Riggs match. (When King threatened to pull out of the match otherwise, Kramer finally conceded.) King understood the significance of an extravaganza watched by 48 million spectators, and played a fastidious, tactically astute match. She tired the 55-year-old with varied groundstrokes and junk balls that moved Riggs around as much as possible, despite her natural propensity to serve and volley. In his 4-6, 3-6, 3-6 loss, the champion of the 1940s was finally exposed as the opportunist of the 1970s. The 26 year age gap suggested that King would be the natural victor, but many commentators understood the deeper significance of her achievement. The New York Times editorialised: ’In a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime’.[12]

In the context of Title IX - an American civil rights law which guaranteed each sex equal access to education and, by extension, athletic opportunities - the Battle of the Sexes invited a revolution in women’s sport, as Susan Ware has analysed. King remarked in 2020 that ‘people never believed [in 1973] that women’s tennis would be a global sport and that players would be making the money they make today.’[13] Through her own pursuit of World Team Tennis and establishment of womenSports magazine in 1974 (an analogue to Gloria Steinem’s Ms.),[14] King continued to nurture the Original Nine’s vision while throwing down the gauntlet of social activism to a new generation of stars.

* * *

For Kristi Tredway, the Original Nine and the first participants on the Virginia Slims circuit constitute the “Founders” cohort, spanning the period until King’s final Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon in 1975. As Billie Jean faded from the spotlight, a new cohort of “Joiners” emerged, led by two of the greatest rivals in sports history: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Their careers span a “Golden Era” of American tennis alongside John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. They drove a global expansion of the Virginia Slims circuit and, through Navratilova, a major reckoning with homosexuality within the women’s game for the first time.

Evert and Navratilova played competitively a total of 80 times, with Navratilova leading the head-to-head 43-37. From 1975 to 1990, they each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Such a volume of matches and the stark contrast of styles made the pair star WTA attractions: the baseline defender versus the serve-and-volleying attacker; the all-American pin-up girl versus the mysterious Soviet defector; the Ice Queen versus the hotheaded Eastern European. However, Navratilova proved a contentious force within the game after her defection from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1975 and her outing as a lesbian in 1981. A concatenation of identities made her body a site for social subversion. Her sex and the unconventional display of her gender - as a pioneer of physical strength in the women’s game - attracted comments that she was “too masculine”. Furthermore, she was provocative with her sexuality by bringing her girlfriend Judy Nelson to matches and forcing television announcers to engage with lesbianism.[15] Her identities overlapped in the public discourse - playing into the “butch” stereotype of late 20th century lesbianism - as well as contrasting with that of Evert. To encapsulate the differential media treatment of the pair, Sally Jenkins, writing contemporaneously for Sports Illustrated, described Evert as ‘the definition of girlhood. She’s what you wanted to act like and what you wanted to look like.’ Meanwhile Navratilova is virtually dehumanised: she possessed ‘a muscularity that made people uncomfortable’.[16] Given such consternation in the reception of lesbian athletes - and preposterous tropes about their conduct in locker rooms - it is unsurprising that both Navratoliva and Billie Jean King guarded their sexuality until they were forcibly outed in 1981. Yet their subsequent celebration of LGBTQ identity enriched women’s tennis as a site for further social activism.

The surveillance journalist Glenn Greenwald - who is writing a biopic about her life - recalls that Martina Navratilova 'was a classic existential hero, someone who refused to have her life constrained or identity suppressed by societal dictates.’[17] In spite of her recent controversial comments about transgender athletes, Navratilova hired Renée Richards as her coach to two Wimbledon titles. Richards broke boundaries as the first male-to-female transgender tennis player, bringing litigation against USTA (and later, WTA-wide) genetic screening regulations designed to bar her from entering the US Open in 1976. The organisation laboured under the assumption that a 43-year-old, having undergone years of sexual reassignment therapy, posed an existential threat to the WTA Tour. In a landmark case for transgender rights, the State of New York ruled in Richards’ favour, which allowed her to reach a rank of 20th during five years on the women’s professional tour. Richards’ activism cleared the way for Sarah Gronert, born intersex, to compete on the women’s tour from the mid-2000s.[18]

While the “Joiners” cohort made great strides in the fields of LGBTQ rights, the overwhelming majority of WTA players remained white. Prior to the Williams sisters, Leslie Allen, Lori McNeil and Zina Garrison struggled as Black female professionals. Allen - the first Black player to win a WTA event in 1981 - wrote this summer:

We were alone and felt the constraints of representing our race. If we “acted out” in any way, we risked being Kaepernicked [see below for explanation]. We kept silent, as to not risk messing up things for the next generation of black players.[19]

It took patience for rewards to filter to these players. Garrison, for instance, reached a Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 1990 before she signed her first deal with Reebok - aged 26, in the eighth year of her career. In fact, her opponent, Navratilova, leant Garrison some of her Nike attire for the occasion. The homogeneity of the “Joiners” cohort suggested that the women’s tennis revolution still had quite some distance to go.

For this reason, Tredway treats the “Sustainers” cohort taking social activism from Navratilova’s last Slam title in 1990 through to the present, with some disdain. The “Sustainers” are defined by the neoliberal and “postfeminist” context surrounding their careers. By neoliberal, Tredway is referring to the political and economic policies popularised by Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, which place a premium on the value of work and cutthroat money-making (especially, in tennis, through corporate sponsorship) over the importance of societal change and solidaristic collaboration. The ideology of postfeminism accords with this, in its bogus implication that ‘equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings which emphasise that it is no longer needed’.[20] That is to say - for tennis players such as Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova - feminism has been redefined as the use of personal beauty, as much as tennis talent, to accumulate fortunes. Tredway suggests that this is ‘faux empowerment’.[21] (I disagree since this denies such players agency over their own bodies, which they can withhold at will. Having accumulated an estimated net worth of $50 million by the age of 21, Kournikova retired in 2002 to relative obscurity with her husband Enrique Iglesias.) But certainly, the hallmark of the “Sustainer” generation is a tunnel vision and self-centredness lacking in previous cohorts. The locker room has become purely functional, rather than a site for social interaction; the fight on the tennis court matters so much more than off it. This mindset encourages an apathy towards the history and social struggles that have allowed such players to enjoy their lucrative lifestyles.

German Steffi Graf is an archetype of the “Sustainer” cohort: a player defined by her on-court exploits (“Fraulein Forehand”) and her isolation from the rest of the WTA Tour. She won 22 Grand Slam titles between 1987 and 1999, to some degree aided by a paucity of rivals; tragically, Monica Seles - who beat Graf in three Grand Slam finals - was stabbed by a deranged supporter of the German on a match court in April 1993. While her physical injuries healed quickly, Seles suffered a psychological trauma and did not return to competitive tennis until August 1995. The player reaction to her stabbing symbolises the loss of empathy and community spirit on the WTA Tour since the 1970s. Only Gabriela Sabatini abstained on a vote in May 1993 to freeze Seles’ No.1 ranking: 16 of the top 17 players opposed, while Graf was absent. The organisation also agreed to give Seles a co-No.1 ranking with Graf for twelve months on her return, but again, Top 10 players such as Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Gigi Fernandez opposed because it would impact on their own tournament seedings. Journalist John Dioso lamented that ‘The whole episode betrays the petty self-centredness engendered by a sport that focuses on pampering the individual’.[22]

The women’s tour expressed a similar tone-deafness on the subject of a goodwill fund for the destitute Althea Gibson, who in 1996 confided in her Wimbledon doubles partner, Angela Buxton, the wish to end her own life in the face of failing health and mounting medical bills. Commentator and former player Mary Carillo told the story thus on the Tennis Podcast:

Sadness had just swallowed [Gibson] up… We had an emergency meeting of players when we heard about the plight of Althea… a lot of people didn’t even know who she was… So a bunch of us were sitting around a big old table, and someone suggested: “Well, we should get her a plaque!” “We should get her something from Tiffany’s!” And I’ll never forget, Billie Jean King - who almost never got that excited and lost her temper in a meeting like that - she said: “She needs money! She needs money!”… Billie just set us all straight.[23]

With King’s hand-holding, the WTA alongside other donors contributed $1 million to Gibson, which sustained her to her death in 2003. But it was not until 2018 that the USTA unveiled a statue on the grounds of the National Tennis Centre: a belated memorial to a forgotten champion. Until recently, such a lack of awareness of the sport’s roots has appeared the rule, rather than the exception, for players across both tennis tours.

[alternate text here]
Venus Williams wins Wimbledon in 2007. From:

The “Throwback” cohort: 1997-present

To be an avid fan of American tennis is to enter into a female-led relationship - more specifically, a relationship led by women of color. The meritocracy of a tennis court prevents those who are racially insensitive from questioning the talent, commitment, competitive drive, and intelligence of black athletes who rise above all to become the best at their craft. (Cecil Harris, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution, 2020, loc. 196)

An exceptional subset within the cohort of “Sustainers”, Kristi Tredway isolates a “Throwback” generation of female players wishing to emulate the Original Nine. Amélie Mauresmo risked her reputation by coming out as a lesbian following her semifinal win at the 1999 Australian Open. Like Navratilova, she faced sloppy homophobic tropes almost immediately: Martina Hingis, Mauresmo’s notoriously unfiltered final opponent, labelled her ‘half a man’. Yet her bravery continued the trend towards making women’s tennis an LGBTQ-friendly environment. Over the years, players from Australia and beyond have castigated tennis legend-cum-evangelical pastor Margaret Court, and threatened to boycott the arena named in her honour at Melbourne Park, following her repeated comments branding homosexuality as sinful and tennis as ‘full of lesbians’. A 2012 fan initiative, Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena, to celebrate inclusivity despite the naming of the stadium, was supported instinctively by such younger players as Brit Laura Robson. In 2020 homosexuality within the WTA is celebrated as unremarkable; there is a first lesbian couple, Belgians Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen, inside the Top 200.

More fundamental, however, to the future direction of the sport was the arrival as champions of Venus and Serena Williams from 1997. As confident Black women, the Williams sisters pose an existential threat to the staid, lily-white tennis establishment. They have transformed the women’s game around serve and power in their image. In lieu of overt racism, both sisters have faced intrusive discussions of their masculine athleticism and unnatural figures from (largely male) commentators. Most recently, in 2018, the French Tennis Federation described as ‘disrespectful’ Serena’s Black Panther-inspired catsuit, which - while designed to prevent blood clots forming after the birth of her daughter - drew attention to her physique. The double-standard with which the sisters are treated is apparent in Serena’s description of herself as ‘the most drug-tested tennis player in history’ (she has never failed a test) while lamenting that such doping cheats as Maria Sharapova are considered more marketable.[24]

With 30 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 Doubles titles between them, Venus and Serena can unflinchingly call out injustice. After a racist incident during the 2001 Indian Wells tournament, the sisters boycotted the tournament for over a decade, returning in 2015 (Serena) and 2016 (Venus). Serena used her near-death experience in giving birth to draw attention to the differential treatment of Black women by healthcare professionals. Furthermore, Venus was instrumental in the fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon. Invoking Billie Jean King, she wrote in The Times on the eve of the 2006 championships that ‘I feel so strongly that Wimbledon's stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.’[25] In an argument adopted by male players to justify inequality to this day, the tournament’s stance rested on “market forces” and the fact that, through no decision of their own, women play best of three rather than the men’s best of five sets at Grand Slams. Fittingly, Venus was the first champion to benefit from an equal £700,000 prize pot for both ladies and gentlemen in 2007.

The Williams sisters have become cultural celebrities in their own right, transcending tennis with interests in fashion, charity work, writing, entertainment and social justice. Serena is a long-time donor to the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to overturn death row convictions among Black men in the South and was the recent subject of the film Just Mercy. Following in their footsteps are such players as Osaka, Coco Gauff, Taylor Townsend and Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and face of seven endorsement deals in 2019. Says Miranda Abney, marketing director of the Milk Processor Education Program with which Stephens is involved: ‘Sloane transcends tennis. If you look at her Instagram feed, she is quite the fashionista [and Black-owned business advocate]. She was in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. This is bigger than the tennis court.’[26] It is also a far cry from when Zina Garrison got to a Wimbledon final before receiving a single sponsorship contract.

Historian Cecil Harris chronicles this legacy of Venus and Serena Williams, as well as the African American male pioneer Arthur Ashe, in a far-reaching recent study. He reinforces the intersectional elements of the struggle for representation in a study of tennis academies - such as Stephens’ coach Kamau Murray’s XS Tennis Village in Chicago - to build access for future generations of Black, female and working-class tennis stars. He also surveys the diversity of tournament staff and the unequal treatment of African American umpires, for which the USTA is currently facing litigation.

Importantly, Harris notes that the depth of Black representation engendered by the Williams sisters on the women’s tour is yet to filter across to the ATP. There are 9 Black women in the WTA Top 100 and 12 Black American women alone competed in this month’s US Open. Meanwhile there are only three Black men in the Top 100: Gael Monfils (#9), Félix Auger-Aliassime (#21) and Frances Tiafoe (#67). Current World No. 312 Donald Young argues that ‘black men tend to look at other sports to find their heroes.’[27] To some extent, therefore, the ATP Tour is let off the hook. It has remained largely racially and sexually homogeneous: there has never been an active, openly gay male tennis player. By extension, men’s tennis remains a difficult site for the contestation of thorny social and political issues.

Perhaps the emergence of such an unlikely leader as Naomi Osaka will spur the game’s male stars to action. It was not until the 2019 grass court swing, her former coach Jermaine Jenkins recalls, that the Japanese first understood how she could use the power of her platform. Her team watched the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, based on the false conviction in 1989 of five men of colour for the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park. Osaka renewed her perspective on the treatment of Black men in America and the history of institutionalised racism, writing in Esquire, ‘I remember watching the outrage at Michael Brown’s case in 2014, and nothing has really changed since.’[28] Shortly after George Floyd’s death this May, Osaka and her rapper boyfriend Cordae travelled to the memorial in Minneapolis and protested peacefully in local Black Lives Matter marches. She recognised the importance of conveying her message in Japan, an ethnically uniform nation which has traditionally struggled with race. Indeed, one of Osaka’s own sponsors, the noodle company Nissin, whitewashed her in a cartoon with ATP star Kei Nishikori. She boasts other lucrative endorsement deals in her birth country, including Nissan, Shiseido and Yonex, and has so far received an overwhelmingly positive reception for her political interjections.

Wim Fisette, Osaka’s current coach, believes that her activism gives her energy that converts to success in matches. She might also feel the solidarity of allies across sports in America and further afield. The Japanese is entering a tradition of protest most obviously inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who “took a knee” during the American national anthem in 2016 to oppose racial injustice - attracting the ire of President Trump, among other conservatives. Kaepernick’s sacrifice (he remains unsigned by any football team since becoming a free agent in 2017) once again looms large in the context of summer 2020. “Taking the knee” has become a ubiquitous symbol of support for Black Lives Matter. Osaka’s withdrawal from Cincinnati mirrored statements like the basketball, soccer and baseball stoppages following the shooting of Jacob Blake. In her nomination as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the Year, the WTA No. 3 joined the esteemed company of other activist sportspeople, such as Formula 1’s Lewis Hamilton and athletics’ Allyson Felix. Maya Moore, who wrote the nomination, is herself an athlete and campaigner who sat out the 2019 and 2020 WNBA seasons to work on criminal justice reform. In March, she helped secure the release of her now-husband Jonathan Irons, a Black man who spent 23 years wrongly convicted on a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault. Moore deserves the last word, summarising the courage not only of Osaka but the whole “Throwback” cohort, grounded in a reality removed from the tennis bubble:

[Naomi Osaka] reminded us that we can all resist the excuses that guard us from giving love. Whatever power we have, the most lasting and life-­giving way we can steward that power is by using it to lift others up. Especially those who aren’t exactly like us.[29]

[alternate text here]
Left to right: Billie Jean King, Bianca Andreescu, Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova. From:

The future of social activism in women’s tennis

‘Originally we had hoped to partner with the men’s tennis tour and have a unified voice in the sport on a global basis. But the guys wanted no part of it.’ (Billie Jean King, 2015)[30]

The post-pandemic restart of the WTA Tour underscored the strength in depth of women’s tennis on the court, too. The quality reached its zenith in two salivating US Open semifinal match-ups between Osaka and Jennifer Brady, and Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka - reprising their 2012 and 2013 Open finals. Both were tight three-setters, defined by incisive baseline rallies; deft net play; variety; fearlessness: every skill that female players were told they lacked fifty years ago. That Azarenka and Williams are both mothers returning to their best level after maternity leave can be credited to the WTA protected rankings system that both fought for. Across women’s tennis, stars are educating themselves on the history of the game and collaborating in anniversary celebrations this week. 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu wrote an extended thank you letter to the Original Nine, arguing that ‘without your gutsy actions, vision and determination for a better future for women's tennis, we wouldn't be here today.’[31]

That’s not to say that the individualistic, neoliberal attitude of the “Sustainers” cohort does not persist. Journalist Tumaini Carayol contends that ‘this four-month break has been more revelatory than a million interviews’.[32] It still does not occur to many players that issues like racial injustice should affect them. Osaka’s former coach, Sascha Bajin, commented after George Floyd’s death that ‘colour isn’t an issue’ in Europe. At the time, Bajin was contracted to the Ukrainian player Dayana Yastremska, who modelled half in blackface in an Instagram post to claim solidarity with people of colour. Hastily erased from her feed, this tone deaf photoshoot succeeded only to further Yastremska’s propensity for vacuous self-promotion.

The reticence of the ATP Tour to engage with the cause of equality within tennis - and the general lack of societal awareness among top male players - has been equally reinforced. While backslapping each other for the idea on Twitter, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal seem to have progressed no further with a scheme to finally integrate the ATP and WTA Tours. This year’s US Open finalists, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, each put monetary incentive and personal enjoyment ahead of public health in their attitude to Covid-19. Thiem, while criss-crossing Europe to play as many exhibitions as possible, became embroiled in a spat with Algerian player Ines Ibbou (WTA rank 620) when he refused to donate to a virus support fund for lower-ranked players. ‘None of them are going to starve… [these players] don’t put the sport above everything else’, argued a man with $27 million in career winnings.[33] He might spare a thought, nonetheless, for Novak Djokovic, who has proven more capable of inflicting defeat on himself than any active player this year. In addition to the Adria Tour debacle and his US Open default, the No. 1 player can add the launch of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) to his 2020 resumé of woe. This breakaway union from the ATP has, as yet, failed to involve WTA players. But the PTPA's cause - a fair distribution of prize money for lower-ranked players - has never been a male-only issue.

Of course, individual male players are allies and trailblazers in their own right. Frances Tiafoe is a BLM activist and the only Black American player ranked in the ATP Top 100. Kevin Anderson is an advocate for LGBTQ awareness on the men’s tour. Andy Murray has long championed feminist causes, hiring Amélie Mauresmo as his coach in 2014 and educating less enlightened peers through social media. He recently called for the renaming of the Margaret Court Arena in opposition to her homophobia which, whether one agrees or not, goes far beyond the studied neutrality of most top male players.[34] I don’t wish to demean the important charity work done by Federer, Nadal and others but there is, and always has been, a shortage of top male players willing to risk their reputation and on-court greatness to advocate on the part of those inside and outside tennis who lack such a voice. In particular, the sport can never move forward as a united front as long as the men’s side treats the women’s tour as detached, if not downright inferior.

* * *

The pioneers of 1970 nurtured a separate but equal women’s tennis tour to a prominence which allows future generations to treat political activism as a reflexive response to injustice. 16-year-old Coco Gauff’s powerful, precocious speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in June is a case in point. Gauff implored antiracism campaigners to ‘use your voice no matter how big or small your platform is.’[35] In an uncertain and polarised world, many spectators are desperate to keep sports outside the political realm. Female athletes in particular are to be seen but not heard. Yet to muzzle sportspeople - to ask them to speak purely through their ability on the court or the field - is to deny them their lived experience and their history. Despite the efforts of a Jack Kramer, a Bobby Riggs, or indeed a Donald Trump, tennis’ female activists will not go away. Declared Naomi Osaka to her Twitter trolls: ‘You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your TV for as long as possible.’

A short introduction to further resources

Books and articles:
Cecil Harris, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (2020).
Naomi Osaka, ‘I Never Would’ve Imagined Writing This Two Years Ago’, Esquire, 1st July 2020.
Nancy E. Spencer, ‘“America’s Sweetheart” and “Czech-mate”: A Discursive Analysis of the Evert-Navratilova Rivalry’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues 27:1 (2003), 18-37.
Kristi Tredway, Social Activism in Women’s Tennis: Generations of Politics and Cultural Change (2020).
Susan Ware, Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (2011).

Battle of the Sexes (2017, dir. Valerie Faros and Jonathan Dayton).

No Challenges Remaining Podcast episodes:
Episode 273n: 2020 U.S. Open Day 13, 13th September 2020.
Episode 275b: Original 9 - Kristy Pigeon, 22nd September 2020.

Tennis Podcast episodes:
Chris Evert - Interview, 11th June 2020.
Tennis Re-Lived: Althea Gibson, 26th August 2020.
Tennis Re-Lived: Arthur Ashe, 28th August 2020.
US Open Day 13 - Naomi Osaka - Champion; Catherine’s capers, 13th September 2020.


[1] Naomi Osaka, ‘I Never Would’ve Imagined Writing This Two Years Ago’, Esquire, 1st July 2020. Link.
[2] Jon Wertheim and Jacob Feldman, ‘The Incomparable Life and Mysterious Death of Suzanne Lenglen’, Sports Illustrated, 27th June 2019. Link.
[3] Kristi Tredway, Social Activism in Women’s Tennis: Generations of Politics and Cultural Change (2020, Kindle version), loc. 948.
[4] Quoted in Cecil Harris, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (2020, Kindle version), loc. 1462.
[5] Jonathan Jurejko, ‘Althea Gibson: The pioneering champion America forgot’, BBC Sport, 23rd August 2019. Link.
[6] Quoted in Harris, Different Strokes, loc. 1554.
[7] Ibid, loc. 1589.
[8] Tredway, Social Activism, loc. 1027.
[9] Ibid, loc. 1228.
[10] Ibid, loc. 1295.
[11] Adam Lincoln, ‘Original 9: A legacy of independence and empowerment’,, 9th January 2020. Link.
[12] Quoted in Susan Ware, Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (2011), p.2.
[13] Quoted in Adam Lincoln, ‘Original 9'.
[14] womenSport promoted tennis principally, but also softball, surfing, running, volleyball, soccer, basketball, field hockey and skiing. It gained a circulation of 200,000 after a few months and ran successfully until it was rolled into Condé Nast in the late 1990s. See Ware, Game, Set, Match, pp. 78-82.
[15] Tredway, Social Activism, loc. 1719.
[16] Quoted in Nancy E. Spencer, ‘“America’s Sweetheart” and “Czech-mate”: A Discursive Analysis of the Evert-Navratilova Rivalry’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues 27:1 (2003), p. 20, 22.
[17] See this discussion of how Navratilova inspired Greenwald as a young gay child growing up in Florida. Unfortunately efforts to make a feature-length documentary about her life have been impeded by Navratilova’s 2018-19 comments on the place of transsexual athletes in women’s sports, and subsequent difficulties to find an appropriate director. Glenn Greenwald, ‘How “Cancel Culture” Repeatedly Emerged in My Attempt to Make a Film About Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova’, The Intercept, 14th July 2020. Link.
[18] Tredway, Social Activism, loc. 1940.
[19] Leslie Allen and Jerry Bembry, ‘Tennis champ Leslie Allen takes USTA to task over ‘tone-deaf’ statement’, The Undefeated, 18th June 2020. Link.
[20] Tredway, Social Activism, loc. 1630.
[21] Ibid, loc. 2286.
[22] John Dioso, ‘Comeback Back Stabbers’, New York Magazine, 31st July 1995. Link.
[23] Mary Carillo interview, Tennis Podcast - Tennis Relived: Althea Gibson, 26th August 2020, 45-49 minutes. Link.
[24] Harris, Different Strokes, loc. 234.
[25] Venus Williams, ‘Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a second class champion’, The Times, 26th June 2006. Link.
[26] Harris, Different Strokes, loc. 2195.
[27] Ibid, loc. 2893.
[28] Naomi Osaka, ‘I Never Would’ve Imagined Writing This Two Years Ago’.
[29] Maya Moore, ‘Naomi Osaka’ in The Most Influential People of 2020, Time, 22nd September 2020. Link.
[30] Quoted in Tredway, Social Activism, loc. 1141.
[31] ‘Bianca Andreescu's open letter to Billie Jean King & Original 9 before 50th anniversary’, BBC Sport, 10th September 2020. Link.
[32] Tumaini Carayol, ‘In summer when Osaka and Gauff became leaders, ATP stars have been exposed’, Eurosport, 30th July 2020, updated 23rd September 2020. Link.
[33] Reuters, ‘“They're not going to starve”: Dominic Thiem will not chip in for struggling tennis players’, The Guardian, 27th April 2020. Link.
[34] Cary Gee, ‘Grand Slam Hunk’, Pride Life, Issue 27, Summer 2020. Link.
[35] ‘Coco Gauff demands change in powerful Black Lives Matter speech’, BBC Sport, 4th June 2020. Link.