Today, Tennis is a major international sport. It is a multi-billion dollar industry. Numerous tournaments at amateur and professional levels are held all over the world. Children aspire to become professional tennis players. Parents encourage their children to take up this glamorous sport. It is one of the few sports in which the earning potential of male and female athletes is almost equal. But things weren't always like that. There was a vast difference in men's tennis and women's tennis. There were fewer tournaments for women. The prize money for women players was very less as compared to male players. There were said and unsaid constraints set on apparel and manner of play too.
Throughout history, all across the world, there have been many brave women from different backgrounds and cultures who fought for gender parity and women's rights in many aspects of life. Similarly, few courageous individuals have transformed women's Tennis. These women changed the face of the game through their playing style, behaviour, deeds off-court and character. Let us look at five players who have shaped Tennis over time -
#1 Li Na - A trailblazer who popularized Tennis in China
One hundred and sixteen million people in China watched the women's finals of the French Open in 2011. Li Na from China won the match, becoming the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam. She later went on to win the 2014 Australian Open by defeating Slovakian Dominika Cibulková. She changed the face of Tennis in China and Asia. After her win, the sport gained momentum in China. There are many Chinese among the top 1000 ranked players now, unlike earlier. She also fought the strict system in China to get a better deal for herself, which paved the way for other Chinese players. She managed to reach an agreement for players like her wherein they could hire their coaches, set their schedules, and keep a far higher percentage of their earnings. People look up to her as a role model for her pursuit of independence.
#2 Serena Williams - Never Say Die
Serena Williams is not only the most supreme tennis player of our times but also the most dominant athlete. Her list of achievements is long -
- She has won a total of 39 grand slam titles ( (in singles, doubles and mixed doubles).
- She has held all four grand slam titles simultaneously twice during her career.
- She has won an ATP tennis title in each of the last four decades.
- She uses her stature to make a difference to the society with multiple philanthropic initiatives.
She did not have it easy though. She did not have the financial means early on and had to face a lot of racism and sexism throughout her career. In spite of the gender-based attacks and career-threatening injuries, Serena has been a dominant and consistent force in women's tennis for numerous years.
She along with her sister Venus Williams changed the face of women's tennis. They steamrolled over limits of physical prowess and mental strength and brought in powerful aces, potent groundstrokes, and an overtly attacking game. They also became well-rounded people instead of single-minded focus on tennis. They completed college and are running successful businesses.
Serena has changed the definition of an athletic woman and has inspired young women to take up sports on their terms.
#3 Martina Navratilova - A Legend
Martina Navratilova is a true champion. She holds the records for most singles (167) and doubles titles (177) in the Open Era. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 major women's doubles titles (an all-time record), and 10 major mixed doubles titles. So she has won a combined total of 59 major titles, marking the Open Era record for the most Grand Slam titles won by one player, male or female. She brought a new wave of athleticism to women's tennis. She raised the level of her game using new training techniques. She openly talked about the idea of cross-training for tennis players. She was forthcoming about her need of coaching for technical and emotional aspects which was a rarity in those times. She played an attacking and aggressive game which was quite different from the brand of tennis that most women players used at that time. Her agility and fast-paced serve and volley game left her opponents with little time to find a rhythm. She was quite vocal about her desire to defect to the United States to get freedom from the communist ideologies of Czechoslovakia (her birth country) at that time. Of course, now she has regained her citizenship of the Czech Republic. She continues to use her fame and fortune for various organizations, in support of gay rights, animal rights, and underprivileged children.
#4 Billie Jean King - The Game Changer
Billie Jean King from the United States is a true champion. She won 39 Grand Slam titles (12 singles, 16 doubles and 11 mixed). She was the first woman to be selected as Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year in 1972. She made a big difference in women's tennis. During her time, there was a big gap in the prize money offered to men and women. Moreover, women's games were relegated to outside courts. Billie Jean King worked hard to reduce the disparity. She united tennis players and was one of the key members who set up the Virginia Slims Circuit to have proper tournaments for women with equitable prize money. The players risked being banned from the Grand Slam tournaments and national rankings. But the tournaments of Virginia Slims became very popular and all other tournaments followed suit. She was instrumental in ensuring the future generations of women players get their fair share and that women's tennis becomes a viable business. She continues to support issues related to equality for women athletes and LGBT rights.
#5 Gladys Heldman - Pioneer Of Professional Women's Tennis
Gladys Heldman started playing tennis quite late. She discovered tennis after marriage and two kids. But she revolutionized the game from outside the court. She founded 'World Tennis' a magazine about tennis written by players. It was well-received by players and fans. It also played a key role in popularizing tennis around the world. She realized that there was a significant disparity in the prize money between men and women, and women's tennis was reduced to the sidelines in dual-gender tournaments. She started a women's tennis tour along with Joe Cullman, CEO of Philip Morris as the sponsor, and nine disgruntled tennis players. The players signed one-dollar contracts with Heldman to compete in the event which was called the Virginia Slims Tour. The first tournament was a big success and was followed by many tournaments across the United States. Traditional tournaments were forced to follow suit to remain relevant. This paved the way for WTA and gave women an opportunity to prosper professionally in tennis.