The Greatest in the Game
A look at the Greatest Black Tennis Players of today and yesterday
With the U.S. Open under way, and Venus Williams’s recent announcement about her health raising questions about how much longer the Williams era in tennis will last, we thought it was a good time to reflect on the greatest black tennis players. Below a ranking, beginning with the greatest of all-time, followed by those striving to solidify their place among the greats today.
1) Serena Williams (1981-the present)
Not only considered one of the greatest female tennis players in history, Serena Williams is considered one of the most successful athletes of any race or gender in American history. She is the highest-earning women’s tennis player ever in terms of prize money (without even calculating endorsements), and the fourth highest earning tennis player of either gender. With more than 27 Grand Slam titles total (13 singles titles, 12 doubles and 2 mixed doubles) she is the most successful player currently on the tennis circuit and considered to be in the top ten most successful of all time. In a word, she’s fierce.
2) Arthur Ashe (1943-1993)
Ashe is not only one of the greatest African-American players ever, but one of the greatest to ever play the game. He was the first black man to win a Grand Slam tournament, winning three as a singles player (Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open) and two as a doubles player (French Open and Australian Open.) He was also the first African-American selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team, which he served as Captain of following his retirement as a player. But Ashe’s greatest legacy may be his role as an AIDS advocate. Upon contracting the disease during a transfusion for heart surgery, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation to Defeat AIDS. The year of his death Sports Illustrated Magazine named him “Sportsman of the Year.”
3) Althea Gibson (1927-2003)
Called “the Jackie Robinson of tennis,” Gibson opened the door for the Williams sisters and all other black tennis players who have since followed. Though she won three Grand Slam tournaments (The French Open in 1956 and the US Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958), because there was no prize money or endorsement deals for female players on what was then considered the amateur circuit, she struggled financially and with health problems later in life. Without Gibson’s knowledge her former doubles partner had a letter published in a tennis publication explaining Gibson’s plight and the discreet campaign raised more than a million dollars for the tennis legend. On the 50th anniversary of her victory there, she was inducted into the US Open Court of Champions.
4) Venus Williams (1980-the present)
The first black woman to reach the number one ranking, in what’s known as the “open era” of tennis, Venus Williams will be remembered as one of the greatest to play the game, next to her sister Serena of course. She’s won six Grand Slam singles trophies and along with her sister, won many more Grand Slam titles as a doubles team. But perhaps her, and her family’s, greatest contribution to the game is helping to make a sport that had largely been viewed as one exclusively for the wealthy, white, and privileged, accessible to other Americans. Though her future as a player was recently called into question by her recent disclosure that she is suffering from Sjogren’s Syndrome, she has already left an indelible mark on the world of tennis, and the world of sports in general.
5) Yannick Noah (1960- the present)
The first and only black man to date, to win the French Open, Noah also holds the distinction of being the last Frenchman to win his home country’s most prestigious tennis tournament. Since retiring as a player he has served as Captain of France’s Davis Cup team where he led them to two victories and has also enjoyed a successful music career in Europe. Athletic success appears to run in the Noah family. His father Zacharie was a major soccer star, while his son Joakim plays for the Chicago Bulls.
6) Zina Garrison (1963-the present)
After reaching a career high ranking of number 4, Garrison secured her place as one of the most accomplished African-Americans ever to play the game. She reached the Wimbledon finals in 1990, but really left her mark as a doubles player, winning three Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles (the Australian Open once and Wimbledon twice) and an Olympic gold medal in doubles 1988.
7) Lori McNeil (1963-the present)
In addition to her legacy as one of only a handful of African-American players to hold a Grand Slam trophy (she won the Mixed Doubles title at the French Open in 1988), McNeil is also remembered for some history making victories. She holds the distinction of beating the most dominant women’s player of the 1990’s, Steffi Graf, not once but twice. Her defeat of Graf at Wimbledon in 1994 marked the first time a reigning Wimbledon champion was defeated in the first round. McNeil would go on to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals that year in addition to the semi-finals of the US Open. The daughter of former San Diego Charger Charlie McNeil, she is currently coaching a new generation of players.
8) MaliVai Washington (1969-the present)
The Washington family, comprised of sisters Mashona and Michaela and brothers Mashika and MaliVai, preceded the Williams sisters by being the first African-American siblings to leave their mark in their tennis world. But it was MaliVai who would become the family’s biggest star. He is best remembered for three things: reaching the 1996 Wimbledon Men’s Final, being named one of PEOPLE Magazine’s Most Beautiful People and for demonstrating incredible sportsmanship throughout his career. He was awarded The Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year Award ten years after his retirement from professional tennis, for his philanthropic work.
9) James Blake (1979-the present)
Blake has credited hearing Arthur Ashe speak as a child with fueling his desire to become a professional player. The biracial Blake (his mother is white and English) left Harvard University to join the professional tour full-time. Since then he has reached the quarterfinals of the US Open twice and the Australian Open once. Blake is well known for his popularity among fellow players and tennis watchers. His “J-Block” consisting of a group of friends who enthusiastically cheer him on at matches has become almost as famous as Blake himself.
10) Gael Monfils (1986-the present)
Currently the highest ranked French tennis player in the world (he’s number 7) Monfils has already reached iconic status in France since he represents the country’s best hope at seeing a Frenchman win the French Open since Yannick Noah. He’s come close, reaching the semi-final there in 2008.
11) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (1985-the present)
Though Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has yet to claim a Grand Slam trophy, he can lay claim to one honor that no other player on this list can: an uncanny resemblance to an athletic legend. Tsonga, who’s the product of a father from the Congo and white French mother, has been drawing comparisons to a young Muhammad Ali since landing firmly in the international spotlight three years ago when as an unseeded player he made it all the way to the Australian Open final.
12) Alexandra Stevenson (1980- the present)
The biological daughter of basketball legend Julius “Dr. J.” Erving and a Caucasian sports journalist, Stevenson charmed tennis fans when she reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1999, just weeks after her high school graduation and after winning a slot in the tournament as an unranked qualifier. Though plagued by injuries since her debut, she has also reached the mixed doubles semi-finals of the US Open.