Venus Williams once declared that, “Tennis is mostly mental. You win or lose the match before you even go out there.” That may be true for the participants, but for us spectators, tennis is extraordinarily physical, too: it’s a beautifully choreographed athletic performance, and an arduous physical challenge.
We hear players’ grunts and screams, we see their powerful shots and quick footwork, all of which requires incredible dexterity, strength and agility. The tension on their faces is enough to illustrate just how much extraordinary mental resilience the sport entails, too.
Unlike many other popular sports, tennis has included women from the beginning: in the late-19th century, British women would play lawn tennis in corsets and bustle skirts. However, women weren’t always treated equally: it wasn’t until 2007 that Wimbledon equalised the prize money for male and female players (thanks for that, Venus Williams!).
The Wimbledon championships are returning to London in July 2019. Not only do they serve as the best form of entertainment for tennis fans the world over, they’re also a reminder of the incredible female tennis stars who broke the mould, changed the game, fought for other women, persevered in the face of injury and discrimination (as well as having to wear corsets while playing!) and inspired countless girls of the next generation to pick up a tennis racket. Here are the names of fab female tennis stars that you need to know.
The first female Wimbledon champion, Watson won the title in 1884, aged 19, wearing a corset and petticoat. She defeated her sister Lilian in the final and took home a grand prize of 20 guineas (these days, she’d get closer to £2.25m for winning the women’s singles).
American tennis star Althea Gibson made history when she became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam, when she dominated the French Open in 1956. She won a total of 11 Grand Slam tournaments before turning to her next sport: golf. Despite facing extensive discrimination, like having to change in her car because she wasn’t allowed into the clubhouse, Gibson became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies’ PGA tour.
The Australian dynamo and former world number one amassed more major titles than any other tennis player in history, and has the most Grand Slam victories ever: 24. For anyone who thinks parenthood slows female athletes down, take note: Court-Smith continued to dominate the sport after having a first, second and third child – she decided to retire for good in 1977, when she learned she was expecting her fourth.
Billie Jean King
A former world number one with a total of 39 Grand Slam titles across singles, doubles and mixed doubles, Billie Jean King fought against discrimination in tennis, founding the Women’s Tennis Association, which hosts the annual US Open, and the Women’s Sports Foundation. The US Open became the first Grand Slam to pay women and men the same prize money, in 1973, the same year that King won the symbolic “Battle of the Sexes” match against the misogynistic Bobby Riggs. "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's [tennis] tour and affect all women's self-esteem,” she stated afterwards. King also played a pivotal role in securing crucial sponsorship for women’s tennis, getting cigarette brand Virginia Slims to sponsor the sport in the 1970s.
The “queen of clay” is one of tennis’ most domineering champions: a teen prodigy who was already world number one by age 19, she won 157 titles in her career, and has the highest career winning percentage in singles matches (just under 90%), in the history of Open Era tennis, for either gender. Not only did she make the two-handed backhand famous, her cult status is the reason we call diamond bracelets, tennis bracelets.
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With 22 Grand Slam titles under her belt, German Steffi Graf is one of tennis’ most remarkable stars. In 1988, she won a Golden Slam: all four Grand Slam titles, as well as an Olympic gold, in the same year – a feat no other tennis player has managed.
Venus and Serena Wiliams
The Williams sisters have changed tennis for good: they’ve fought for what female tennis players can wear on the court, have dominated the sport for over a decade with their remarkable talent and athleticism (Venus is a seven-time Grand Slam winner; Serena has 23 major titles) and they are vocal about equality in tennis for women and men.
Venus changed tennis history when she helped advocate for equal pay in prize money at Wimbledon, telling the Grand Slam board: "I said: 'All of our hearts beat the same. When your eyes are closed, you really can't tell, next to you, who's a man and who's a woman.' And (I asked them) to think about their daughters and their wives and sisters. How would they like them to be treated? Sometimes, we lose track of, and don't even realise, our own bias and our own prejudice. And we have to confront ourselves.”
Serena has become an activist against prejudice towards female players and has been vocal about the struggles of returning to work after becoming a mother. We know they’ve inspired girls the world over to try tennis, and Venus’ eye-catching on-court dresses are the reason American champion and rising star, Madison Keys, decided to pick up a tennis racket.
A tattooed, beer-swigging Chinese tennis star and two-time Grand Slam champion, Li Na has inspired countless of young Chinese girls to try the sport. She continues to show women in China that they can follow their own paths, not the ones dictated by their husbands or parents.
The world number one player became the first Japanese player (she’s half-Japanese, half-Haitian) to win a singles Grand Slam title at the 2018 US Open by beating her childhood hero, Serena Williams, before winning a second consecutive Grand Slam at the Australian Open a few months later, making her the first Asian player, and the youngest, to hold the top ranking in singles. Did we mention all of this has happened before the age of 21?