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Black History Month: 8 players of African ancestry who have had a significant impact on tennis

There have been many sensational tennis players of African origin over the years
There have been many sensational tennis players of African origin over the years

Black History Month, observed in the United States and Canada from 1 February - 1 March, celebrates the legacy of notable African-American activists such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.

Over the years, several players of African ancestry have left their mark on the sport. In many instances, this impact has gone beyond the boundaries of tennis.

Althea Gibson showed the way in this context. She became the first black woman to win a Grand Slam at the 1956 French Open. Gibson went on to triumph at four more Majors, winning the Wimbledon-US Open double in both 1957 and 1958.

Then came Arthur Ashe, who won three Grand Slam titles in his career. Gibson and Ashe paved the way for several African-American tennis players of subsequent generations, including the Williams sisters.

Venus and Serena Williams have both had glittering careers, with a combined 62 Grand Slams. The likes of Madison Keys and Sloanne Stephens have also had their share of success, with the latter winning the US Open in 2017.

Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe, meanwhile, are promising youngsters who have a bright future ahead of them.

A number of Europeans of African origin have also had spectacular careers in the sport. France's Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have repeatedly dazzled spectators on court.

Tsonga reached the final of the Australian Open in 2008, and has won 18 titles in his career so far. Monfils, on the other hand, boasts 11 titles to his name and has also produced strong performances this year, winning the Adelaide International 1 and reaching the Australian Open quarters.

On that note, let's take a look at eight tennis players of African ancestry who have had a significant impact on the sport.

#8 Yannick Noah

Yannick Noah is the only French player to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era
Yannick Noah is the only French player to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era

Yannick Noah is among the finest French tennis players ever seen. He is the only man from his nation to win a Major in the Open Era, triumphing at the 1983 French Open. Noah defeated Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander en route to his victory at Roland Garros.

The Frenchman had an illustrious career during which he won a total of 23 singles titles. He also won 16 doubles titles and attained the World No. 1 ranking in that format in 1986. Noah achieved a career-high singles ranking of World No. 3 the same year.

Apart from tennis, Yannick Noah has always been active in charity work, starting with the Enfants de la Terre charity which was founded in 1988. He also has his own association named Fete Le Mur, which promotes tennis in poor and remote areas in France.

#7 Coco Gauff

Coco Gauff delivered a powerful speech during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020
Coco Gauff delivered a powerful speech during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020

One of the brightest young talents in tennis at present, Coco Gauff has already achieved several notable feats at the age of just 17. These include winning two WTA titles and reaching the semifinals of the Italian Open.

The American has also enjoyed quarter-final runs at the French Open, Qatar Open and the Rogers Cup. She currently sits at No. 18 in the WTA rankings.

Gauff delivered a powerful speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in Florida in 2020, about a month after the death of George Floyd.

#6 Frances Tiafoe

Frances Tiafoe won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian award in 2020
Frances Tiafoe won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian award in 2020

Currently ranked No. 32 in the world, Frances Tiafoe has produced some spectacular performances in the past couple of years. The American defeated three top 10 players in 2021 - Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and Andrey Rublev.

Like Gauff, Tiafoe has also lent his support to the Black Lives Matter movement. The American and his girlfriend Ayan Broomfield started the "Rackets Down, Hands Up" campaign in 2020 to raise awareness about racial discrimination and diversity.

Several popular players took part in the campaign, including Serena Williams, James Blake, Naomi Osaka, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It starts with all of us. Thank you @FTiafoe https://t.co/ABIeVRw9S2

Tiafoe's off-court activities during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement saw him win the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award in 2020.

#5 Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is well known for her activism
Naomi Osaka is well known for her activism

Naomi Osaka is easily among the world's best players of this decade, having won four Majors and also held the World No. 1 ranking. Osaka is among the most popular tennis stars right now, and her off-court activities are just as much a reason for that as her performances on court.

In 2020, the Japanese withdrew from the Western & Southern Open to protest the shooting of African-American Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. During that year's US Open, Osaka wore masks displaying the names of African-Americans killed at the hands of the police.

#4 Venus Williams

Venus Williams has won a total of 23 Grand Slam titles
Venus Williams has won a total of 23 Grand Slam titles

Venus Williams started her career at age 14, and at 41 she is still not done. The American has won seven singles and 16 doubles Grand Slams.

In 2005, Williams fought for equal prize money in response to the French Open and Wimbledon paying men more than women. In 2006 she got support from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and later that year, UNESCO teamed up with the WTA for a campaign promoting equal pay.

Williams' fight led to Wimbledon and the French Open announcing in 2007 that men and women would be paid equally.

#3 Serena Williams

Serena Williams has been an advocate for several social causes off the tennis court
Serena Williams has been an advocate for several social causes off the tennis court

Serena Williams has established herself as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. The American has enjoyed a glittering career that has seen her win a total of 39 Grand Slam titles - 23 in singles in 16 in doubles.

Williams has participated in several causes off the court, which includes speaking out against police brutality towards African-Americans. She is also an ambassador for the Allstate Foundation's Purple Purse project, which provides financial support to victims of domestic abuse.

#2. Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe was a noted civil rights activist
Arthur Ashe was a noted civil rights activist

Arthur Ashe was one of the finest players of his era, winning three Grand Slam titles - the Australian Open, US Open and Wimbledon. He was the first African-American on the United States' Davis Cup team.

Apart from his exploits on the court, Ashe was a tireless advocate for human and civil rights. He was also vocal in his criticism of Apartheid in South Africa, and was arrested in 1985 for protesting outside the African nation's embassy in Washington.

Almost 30 years following his death, Ashe is still remembered as a beloved figure in the world of sports.

#1. Althea Gibson

Billie Jean King speaks during the unveiling of Althea Gibson's sculpture during the 2019 US Open
Billie Jean King speaks during the unveiling of Althea Gibson's sculpture during the 2019 US Open

Voicing Althea Gibson's influence on tennis, Billie Jean King once said:

"If it hadn’t been for Althea Gibson, it wouldn’t have been so easy for Arthur (Ashe) or the ones who followed."
Tennis anyone? In 1951 Althea Gibson became the first African American to play at Wimbledon in Great Britain. https://t.co/ROHsGHBeZv

Gibson was the first African-American tennis superstar and won five Grand Slam titles in her career. The most incredible thing about her achievements is that they came at a time when segregation was still prevalent in the United States.

Gibson found it difficult to compete at the US Open (US National Championships back then) because qualification was earned by playing in various clubs, which were mostly reserved for white people. She was eventually allowed entry into the tournament after writing a letter demanding she be allowed to compete.

Gibson's remarkable career shattered racial barriers and paved the way for future African-American tennis stars.

Venus Williams and Father Richard recall one match that 7-time Grand Slam champion "should have won"

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Edited by Nihal Taraporvala
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