Women and Tennis in America: Historical Roots

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A Bit of History

A women's final at the old Wimbledon, 1905.
A women's final at the old Wimbledon, 1905. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

In 1874, Mary Ewing Outerbridge, on vacation in Bermuda, discovered the game of lawn tennis. The game, played in England at least since 1793, was introduced into Bermuda and other British colonies by British officials and their wives.

Outerbridge bought equipment for the game in Bermuda and brought it home to Staten Island, where she introduce the game to her friends. Her brother was director of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, and, seeing the growing popularity of this game, he added a lawn tennis court.

The United States National Lawn Tennis Association formed in 1884, recognizing the growth of the game with a national championship tournament in men's singles and doubles. A women's singles tournament was added in 1887 and women's doubles in 1890.

Lawn tennis was popular among the well-to-do, who played avidly in their leisure time for health, competition and entertainment. Tennis, like golf, was part of a culture of exclusive private sports clubs for wealthy men and their wives and children.

Jews, African Americans and recent immigrants were usually excluded. By the mid-twentieth century, some Jewish clubs had formed and an all-black American Tennis Association extended opportunities for tournament competition to African American tennis players.

One side effect of all this athletic activity by the wealthy was that it prompted the educated leaders of many settlement houses and later public programs to emphasize the health and mental benefits for children in poor neighborhoods. Althea Gibson is an example of a beneficiary of such efforts.

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Helen Wills Moody

Helen Wills playing her first Wimbledon final against Kathleen McKane, 1924. Artist: Tropical Press
Helen Wills playing her first Wimbledon final against Kathleen McKane, 1924. Artist: Tropical Press. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Dates: October 6, 1905 - 1998 

Also known as: Helen Wills, Helen Wills Moody-Roark

In the 1920s through mid 1930s, Helen Mills Moody dominated women's tennis in America and internationally.  She won 180 matches in a row, not losing even a single set.

Helen Wills was raised by a family who expected much of her. She loved to play outdoors as a child. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California and Berkeley. She began playing tennis for fun and as a family activity. Her first tournament was in 1919, at age 13. Her February 1926 against Suzanne Lenglen in Cannes, France, was called "the Match of the Century."

It was while she was in France for that match that she met Frederick Moody. they married in 1929 and divorced in 1937.  She married Aiden Roark, an actor and polo player, in 1939 and they divorced in the 1970s.

During her career, she won US Open titles seven times (1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1931).  She won at Wimbledon eight times (1927, 1928, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1938).  She won two Olympic gold medals in Paris in 1924: both singles and doubles (with Hazel Wightman). She won the French championship four times.

She retired from tennis in 1938, and became an artist.  Her paintings and drawings were shown in the United States and in Europe.

Frida Kahlo used her as a model for the main figures in the mural "California," but the buyer, the San Francisco Stock Exchange, had Kahlo repaint the figure as they wanted no living person depicted.

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Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson leading tennis clinic at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, New York, New York, December 1957
Althea Gibson leading tennis clinic at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, New York, New York, December 1957. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Dates: August 25, 1927 - September 28, 2003

Althea Gibson broke the color bar in tennis at Wimbledon in the 1950s, a time when prejudice and segregation were deeply ingrained in sports and society. In 1951, she was invited to enter the all-England tournament at Wimbledon, the first African-American of either gender to achieve this honor. She went on to win many more tournaments, including Wimbledon women's doubles and singles in 1957. 

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Monica Seles

Monica Seles of Yugoslavia
Simon Bruty / Getty Images

Dates: December 2, 1973 -

Known for the strange noises that accompany her strokes, her powerful two-handed forehand, Seles held a commanding position in he in her sport from the time she won the Yugoslav 12-and-under girls championship in 1981 - she was nine at the time - through her retirement from professional play on February 14, 2008.

Less fortunately, Seles is also known for the bizarre incident in April, 1993, at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, when she was stabbed in the back as she rested between games. Her attacker was an obsessed fan of Stefi Graf who wanted to help Graf be the number one player again. Seles was unable to compete for 27 months, but returned with decisive wins that again placed her at the top.