Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson

*With the opening of the French Open this week in Paris the theme made famous more than 30 years ago by the cigarette company “Virginia Slims” resonates – “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.”

No where is this statement truer than in American tennis. For the first time in history, American women’s tennis is dominated by African American women.

From the time Althea Gibson stepped onto the professional tennis court in 1956 to become the first African American (male or female) to win a grand slam title (The French Open) to now, you’ve come a long way baby.

According to the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) rankings, the four top American women tennis players are African American—Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams and Madison Keys.

Since the introduction of “big babe” tennis by the Williams sisters, America’s tennis landscape has changed dramatically. The term “big babe” was coined by tennis announcer Mary Carrillo.

As the number one tennis player in the world, Serena Williams stands atop the world of women’s tennis with 11590 points and has no equal. At the age of 32, Serena is playing her best tennis and has dominated women’s tennis for the past two years. Chasing history is the best way to describe Serena. She currently holds 60 career singles titles, 22 doubles titles and 17 grand slams (Australian Open-5, French Open-2, Wimbledon-5 and U.S. Open-5), just one behind second place Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18. Serena needs 5 more grand slam titles to tie Open era leader Steffi Graf.

“Despite losing in the second round in the French Open, Serena is still the most feared woman’s tennis player in the world. No one wants to see her in their draw. She still has a chance to catch and pass Chris and Martina and I believe she can pass Steffi, if she stays injury free and retains the passion for the game,” said one tennis expert.

Sloane Stephens is ranked number 19 in the world and is America’s number 2. Last year she almost made it to the Top 10 when she reached number 11 in the world. In order to continue to improve her game to become a top 10 player, Stephens has hired world renowned coach Paul Annacone who has guided the careers of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

Despite having Sjögren’s Syndrome, which can be very debilitating, Venus Williams, at the ripe old age of 33 (she turns 34 on Jun 17, still has lots of game left. Changing her diet and her workout routine Venus still holds sway on the tennis court. She is number 29 in the world and is America’s number three (3) woman’s tennis player. Earlier this year she made it to the finals of the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand and won the title at the Dubai Duty Free in Dubai. Venus owns 45 career titles in singles and 21 titles in doubles with little sis Serena and seven (7) grand slam titles (5 Wimbledon’s and 2 U.S. Opens).

Nineteen year-old Madison Keyes just turned pro in 2009. She is America’s number 4 and ranked 40 in the world.

“She has the ability to hit winners from anywhere on the court,” former number one player and Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport says about Keyes. “She has so many weapons in her arsenal. There’s a lot to be excited about with this young American.”

There is one more African American looking to make her mark on women’s tennis. Eighteen year-old Taylor Townsend is making her grand slam debut this week at the French Open. She booked her wild card spot by winning back-to-back titles in tournaments in Charlottesville and Indian Harbour, part of the USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge.

Townsend’s debut was impressive knocking out Vania King in the first round of the French Open and defeating Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in three impressive sets to advance to the third round. “She is going to be so good. She has so much talent. Watching some of the shots she’s hit is impressive. She’s got really good touch and terrific foot speed,” says ESPN Tennis Announcer and former WTA star Renee Stubbs. “I’m loving what I’m seeing from Taylor Townsend,” says Martina Navratilova.

What more is there to say: You’ve come a long way baby!!!!

(Ms. Chico Norwood is an award winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Sentinel, Ebony Magazine and other publications. Her blogs and articles can be found at yourblackbloggers.net and www.tebfoundation.org.)

chico norwood

Chico Norwood