Australian tennis star Margaret Court made headlines and the record books when she won the U.S. Open in 1973. She was the first mother in history to win three of the four most prestigious tournaments in tennis. Court made news again in 2017 when she charmingly told an interviewer:
”Tennis is full of lesbians. Everyone knows it’s wrong. The church is here to help them overcome that lifestyle.”
Gay tennis legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, two of Court’s biggest career rivals, requested that her name be stripped from the Australian Open’s courts after her remarks caused an uproar. Court’s homophobia is way out-of-date, but she is right: women’s tennis has plenty of lesbian players and fans, and always has.
Last years at the French Open, there were three lesbians in the finals. Men’s Tennis does not have a single openly gay player.
Women’s Tennis has broken all sorts of barriers for LGBTQ players in sports. Today, the Women’s Tennis Association fully embraces Gay Pride, but we are long past tennis’s Golden Age of Lesbianism, which brought women equal prize money and more fans than any other women’s sport.
Instead of kicking back and enjoying her Number One world ranking, Billie Jean King led a movement of mid-ranked women’s players to boycott the U.S. Open in 1973, demanding equal pay for both sexes, and she succeeded. She famously beat Bobby Riggs in the most-watched tennis match ever, The Battle of the Sexes, after Court lost to Riggs earlier in a match referred to as the ”Mother’s Day Massacre”. King:
”Sports are a microcosm of society. I wanted to use sports for social change. I used to be told that if I talked about my sexuality in any way we wouldn’t have a tennis tour. ”
King has 12 Grand Slam titles, and she was the first professional athlete in the world to come out as gay in 1981, when she was unceremoniously outed by a palimony suit from an ex-lover. She lost all of her endorsements and kept her tennis career going past 40, just to afford legal fees. 18-time champion Navratilova was outed by a reporter only months after the King scandal, losing millions of dollars in endorsements. Together, the tennis legends broke a barrier in sports. Navratilova:
”Tennis doesn’t know barriers, really. You are judged on your performance, how far you can jump, how fast you can run, how well you can hit a tennis ball.”
If only it had been true in the 1980s. Navratilova won more grand slams than anyone of her generation. But despite her success, being a lesbian and a European among Americans made it hard for her to win over fans.
Navratilova and King made significant sacrifices to be out. Champions Amelie Mauresmo and Jana Novotna were able to come out in the 1990s, when most athletes were still in the closet. Today, Alison Van Uytvanck and Conny Perrin, give the two early superstars as their inspiration for coming out.
Maybe the entire tennis universe has been spoiled by having King and Navratilova as tennis’s most impressive champions. Perhaps a player will come along who can match their talent and vigor for both the sport and social issues. Until then, we have a history full of lesbian tennis heroes to give inspiration.
Not many people know that before Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the longest serving United States President, he was overshadowed by his first cousin, Ellen Roosevelt, a national tennis champion and the talk of New York City. In 1879, she started playing tennis with her sister Grace Roosevelt after her father installed a tennis court at their mansion ‘Rosedale’.
She won the women’s singles title at the 1890 U.S. Championships defeating the 1888 and 1889 champion Bertha Townsend in the final in two straight sets. That year she also won the doubles title with her sister. They were the first pair of sisters to win the U.S. Championships and remained the only pair to do so until the Serena and Venus Williams equaled their achievement in 1999.
At the 1893 U.S. Championships she won the mixed doubles title partnering Oliver Campbell. Campbell, also gay, was one of the best players of the era, the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open singles title, as a 19-year-old in 1890, a record would stand for a hundred years, Pete Sampras, would win the title exactly 100 years later in 1990 at 19, just a few months younger than Campbell.
Ellen’s and Franklin’s grandfather was Isaac Roosevelt, the Roosevelt family patriarch who built his summer residence, Rosedale, along the Hudson River in Hyde Park. Both grandchildren spent much of their childhood there. Franklin Roosevelt made it his own summer residence, after he became president, and the Roosevelt Historic Site is still there. You can visit masked and socially distanced.
In the 1890s, tennis was just beginning to become a commonly played sport. It was essentially a sport for the very wealthy and European royalty. Public tennis courts were non-existent. The first United States Tennis Championship tournament was first held in 1889.
Roosevelt’s performances during the 1890s have been recognized by the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1975. The Tennis Hall of Fame was established in 1954, and by 2019 only 220 tennis players from 19 countries had been inducted.
Roosevelt’s father was John Roosevelt who lived on the Rosedale Estate his entire life. Franklin Roosevelt’s father, James Roosevelt was the only sibling of John Roosevelt. Since Franklin Roosevelt was an only child, the only three grandchildren of Isaac Roosevelt were Franklin, Ellen and Grace.
Among her lovers were fellow tennis players Juliette Atkinson and Jane Craven, but not apparently her cousin’s lesbian wife (and her fifth cousin) Eleanor Roosevelt, or the first lady’s girlfriend Lorena Hickok, or Eleanor’s high-flying gal pal, Amelia Earhart; they all preferred softball.