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WTA

RIVARD: HAPPY FEBRUARY!

by Paul Rivard

February 7, 2023

Gibson, Williams, Gauff. Three eras and four Black women in tennis whose given names resonate even louder. Althea, Venus and Serena, Coco.

Althea Gibson was one of the greatest tennis players of her time and a world-class golfer. A complete, exceptional athlete.

During their careers, which span more than a quarter-century, Venus and Serena Williams changed and later dominated the game. Above all, they gave countless young girls the hope they could dream.

And Coco Gauff, who owes much to Althea, Venus and Serena, is poised to win tournaments and perhaps even majors. And why not the National Bank Open this summer?

What these women have in common is the colour of their skin. They have driven change in the sports entertainment industry and certainly in society as a whole.

COCO

Of course, you’re familiar with the accomplishments of Corie Coco Gauff. A child prodigy, she was identified in her early teens as the WTA’s next big star. And she’s delivered.

Photo : Getty

By the time she turned 19, she’d claimed three titles and competed in a Grand Slam final (2022 Roland-Garros). She’s also established herself as a formidable doubles player. With three different partners, she’s taken home six titles and fought in two major finals. She’s already been appointed a worthy successor to the Williams sisters.

Will she get close to their mind-blowing record? It’s unlikely but not impossible. But she doesn’t have to be another Williams, because she’s Gauff.

VENUS AND SERENA

What Venus and Serena Williams have achieved is epic: 122 singles titles, including 30 Grand Slam crowns, and 45 doubles titles, including 28 majors.

Photo : Getty

Accumulated on and off the court, their wealth will also be hard to match. Their combined tennis earnings amount to $138M, and they have amassed an additional $219M (for a total of $357M) since they began their professional career in the mid-1990s.

That’s a lot to miss on Centre Court at IGA Stadium this August. At least, Serena will be missed, since there’s still the faint hope Venus will continue to live out her passion beyond her 43rd birthday. Fingers crossed.

ALTHEA

Althea Gibson was a pioneer and a different type of fighter. She’s the one everyone followed, the first to definitely break down the racial barrier in women’s tennis.

Photo : AELTC

Twelve years before Arthur Ashe, she was the first African-American to win a Grand Slam. She collected 11 in her career, including 5 in singles. Her first came on French clay in 1956. She then went on to triumph at Wimbledon and the US Open twice (1957 and 1958).

Her achievements made her the second Black American, after four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, to be given a ticker-tape parade in honour of her outstanding accomplishments in sports.

Photo : Wikipedia Commons

Even so, racial segregation was inescapable. She still had amateur status (yes, you read that right) and had to stop competing in 1958 because the financial strain was too great. By then, she’d won 56 national and international titles.

Published in 1960, her first book is entitled I Always Wanted to be Somebody.

Photo : GreaterDiversity.com

PIONEERS and DISCIPLES

Since 1976 in the US and since 1995 in Canada, February has been Black History Month. The United Kingdom and Ireland celebrate it also, in October.

In the history of professional tennis, there are more than 80 well-known Black players, all genders and eras combined. If you’re thinking to yourself that the total is low, you’d be right. Especially considering the hundreds of thousands of players who’ve gone head-to-head on the court in the past 145 years, since the very first tournament at Wimbledon in 1877.

But since Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, it’s a substantial number. Their examples served to inspire so many others who’ve helped make their mark over the decades.

And the number will continue to rise.

Because after Althea Gibson came Renee Blount, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, Chanda Rubin and Alexandra Stevenson, to name only the leading players.

Then there were the superstar Williams sisters, who were followed by fellow Americans Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Sachia Vickery and Asia Muhammad, as well as by Heather Watson of Great Britain.

Now, a new generation is emerging.

British teen sensation Hephzibah Oluwadare, 15, is coming up with Robin Montgomery, 18, and Alycia Parks, 22, of the US.

ALYCIA

I thought I’d end this blog by letting you know how Alycia Parks kicked off this very special month.

Photo : James Richardson

In the quarters of the indoor Lyon Open, trapped by Petra Martic’s lob, she launched this tweener-lob.

In 2022, Alycia climbed nearly 140 spots in the rankings. In a three-week span last fall, she battled her way into the semis of an ITF tournament (80) in Spain and raised back-to-back WTA (125) winner’s trophies in Andorra and France to move up from No.150 to No.75.

On February 5, she seized her third title and punched her ticket to the Top 50 when she won the most important final of her career at the WTA 250 in Lyon against none other than French favourite and current World No.5 Caroline Garcia.

This symbolic February smiled admirably on the young American. And perhaps early August in Montréal will as well.

Photo : Panoramic