14 tennis players, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe, who have taken a stand on social issues
Tennis Majors looks at some of the players who have been brave enough to put stick their head out and taken a vocal stance on social issues
Bravery in the face of social injustice has been a part of tennis’ past and will continue to be a part of its future. In 2020, the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis had sparked WTA stars Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka into action. In the wake of the tragedy, both had posted powerful words on social media in support of social justice. Osaka went to the extent of saying she would not play her semi-final match at the 2020 Western & Southern Open to follow NBA players’ strike after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Let’s take a look at some of the noteworthy players from tennis, present and past, who have mustered the courage to stand up for a cause.
Just her mere presence as perhaps the greatest female athlete – or tennis player, or athlete – to ever live is a source of inspiration for the African American community, black athletes and women everywhere, but Serena Williams has never shied away from using her influence to raise up those in need of support. Williams has spoken out against police brutality against blacks and, after giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia, has been an advocate for maternal healthcare and mothers in the workplace. She has also spoken out against domestic abuse.
In February 2022, it was announced that Serena Williams will receive the Jackie Robinson Sports Award at the NAACP Image Awards to be held in Pasadena, California on February 25.
The Jackie Robinson Sports Award is given to individuals in sports for their achievements in sport as well as impact outside of their sport in the areas of social justice, civil rights and community involvement.
The 23-time Grand Slam singles champions joins Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilma Rudolph and the Harlem Globetrotters as winners of the prestigious award.
Billie Jean King
The former world No 1 has been a tireless advocate of equal rights for women, both on court and off the court. In 2009, she was awarded the presidential medal of freedom for her work for equality. She has been a champion of social justice in all forms and never hesitates to call it as she sees it in public.
True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.Arthur Ashe
The American was a long-time advocate for civil and human rights, a role model for athletes around the world. “From what we get, we can make a living. What we give, however, makes a life,” Ashe said. The American was a reluctant hero at first, but the indignities he endured shaped him into a powerful source of intelligent discourse and patient, critical thinking. Ashe dedicated much of his life to speaking out against apartheid and was even arrested in 1985, for protesting in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.
As outspoken and honest as they come, the legendary Navratilova has long been an advocate for the LBGTQ+ movement and uses her social media platform to educate and liberate. At the 2020 Australian Open, Navratilova and John McEnroe protested Margaret Court’s homophobia and called for Margaret Court Arena to be renamed “Evonne Goolagong Arena.”
Billie Jean King started the fire but it was Williams who took it further and led the fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon. On the eve of her 2005 Wimbledon title Williams appealed to the Grand Slam committee. The next year she eloquently penned an op-ed in the London Times, calling for equal pay at Wimbledon. After she won the 2007 title, Williams became the first woman to receive the same champion’s purse as the men’s singles champion.
The only Frenchman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era (Roland-Garros 1983), Noah was strongly influenced by Arthur Ashe, who discovered him in Cameroon in the 1970s. Noah began his fight against poverty and for tolerance in 1988 with “Les Enfants de la Terre”, founded by his mother, and above all with his own association, Fête le Mur (“The Wall is a celebration”), which promotes education with tennis in the poorest areas of the suburbs. Founded in 1996, Fête le Mur is more active than ever. Noah can regularly be heard and seen making a pro-tolerance stance.
The Scot has been an outspoken promoter of women in sport and wrote an essay for the BBC about how seeing what Amelie Mauresmo had to put up with when she was his coach had really opened his eyes to sexism in tennis. On numerous occasions Murray has spoken up in favor of women in sport, over the years ranting against sexism in sport and declaring himself a feminist. The three-time Slam champion famously replied to a journalist:
“Have I become a feminist? Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man then yes, I suppose I have.”
Gibson was the first black athlete to win a Grand Slam event and though she shunned the limelight and didn’t want to be a pioneer, her achievements paved the way for the likes of Ashe, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. “If it hadn’t been for her,” says Billie Jean King, winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, “it wouldn’t have been so easy for Arthur (Ashe) or the ones who followed.”
The Young Ones
Less than a year after her breakthrough as a professional, the immensely popular 16-year-old stepped up to the fore during the Black Lives Matter movement. Here is her powerful video in response to the events in Minnesota.
The two-time Grand Slam champion recently became the highest-paid female in history. Clearly she is more than a money machine. Osaka has spoken out against racism and even posted pictures taken at protests in Minneapolis. She also wore a mask with the names of victims of police brutality during her run to the 2022 US Open title to bring awareness to the issue.
Fed up with cyber-bullying and realizing that her status as an elite athlete in the highest profile women’s sport gave her tremendous sway, Keys has made it her mission to make the internet a safer, saner place. The American launched Fearlessly Girl USA, and has since re-branded it into her own non-profit venture, KindnessWins.org.
Gibbs is a self-professed activist that is as passionate about her politics as she is her tennis. She has used her growing social media following to express her views on gun control, global warming, and Black Lives Matter. Her Twitter bio leads off with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that reads: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
In an era where mental health issues have risen to prominence across the globe, Rubin has put them front and center in the tennis world. The American started Behind the Racquet as an Instagram feed that gave the player’s a voice to share their stories – and their pain and frustrations – with the world. Just over a year later the feed has grown into a website and the mental health issues of the stars of our sport are no longer being swept under the carpet.
The Briton wore a rainbow ribbon and mobilised other players to do the same after homophobic comments by Margaret Court at the Australian Open in 2012.