This is the week when the pro-tennis circus makes its annual stop in the nation’s capital for the Citi Open, at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. But any fans who are visiting D.C. to watch today’s pros might want to take a detour from the courts, and from their usual tourist rounds, to see a few other American players whose images reside in the city year-round. It might be a reminder of how much this famously traditionalist sport meant to the progress of the United States in the last century, and how much it might mean in this one.
Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Arthur Ashe, Helen Wills, Bill Tilden: Their images, in the form of paintings, magazine covers and at least one sculpture, can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, a few blocks from the National Mall and a 20-minute drive from Rock Creek Park. In the way that they’re shown—or partially hidden—these works can seem like an afterthought. They’re tucked away along a mezzanine, up a flight of side stairs, as part of a long-term exhibit of portraits of U.S. sporting heroes. Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Johnny Unitas are among the many legends of American sports whose paintings and photographs line these walls.
Althea Gibson graced the Time cover to commemorate her Wimbledon win in 1957. (Anita Aguilar)
When I visited the Portrait Gallery this spring, though, I was struck by how many tennis players were included, and how well they held their own in terms of historical significance。 We—or I, anyway—normally think of tennis as somewhat tangential to the national story, so it’s nice to see images of players who did make a difference to that story—Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson—featured prominently。
A bust of Wills is one of many tennis representations in the National Portrait Gallery. (Anita Aguilar)
But during this visit, the importance of tennis history seemed to me to go beyond these well-known pioneers. Seeing a photo of Evert from her mid-1970s heyday (below), a bust of Wills (above) from the 1930s, a Time cover of Althea Gibson commemorating her Wimbledon win in 1957 (at top)极速赛车双面盘, made it clear that, as women slowly, gradually, eventually, hopefully, play a greater role in other sports in the coming decades, tennis’ history will become more central and relevant to sports history as a whole. Tennis, of course, is one of the few major sports that has always had women’s events, played on the same courts as the men’s; has had a professional women’s tour for nearly 50 years; and will someday have Serena Williams in its Hall of Fame.
Chris Evert's popularity in the 1970s helped grow the sport. (Anita Aguilar)
It isn’t only the activists and barrier breakers who have made a difference, and who are worth learning about. Wills is a distant name for most today, but the Northern California native is considered the first U.S. female athlete, in any sport, to have become a household name worldwide. Which makes sense, since she was as dominant as Rafa on clay: Wills won 19 of the 24 major singles events she entered between 1922 and 1938. She also won her own Battle of the Sexes, over Phil Neer, a 32-year-old ranked No. 8 in the country, 6-3, 6-4.
Much the same can be said of Evert. While it was King who was the driving force behind the formation of the WTA, it was Evert’s popularity that brought so many new players to the courts during the 1970s, and legitimated the two-handed backhand, a shot that made the game easier to learn.
Billie Jean King remains an influential figure in tennis and women's rights. (Anita Aguilar)
When it comes to celebrating its own history, U。S。 tennis has favored Ashe over Gibson, despite the fact that, as the first African-American to play at Forest Hills, she was the sport’s version of Jackie Robinson。 While Ashe’s name graces a 23,000-seat arena at Flushing Meadows, Gibson’s has been largely absent from the grounds。 That seems to be changing: The US Open will dedicate a new statue to Gibson this year, and the USTA has helped , where she honed her Grand Slam-winning game。
As you can begin to see in D.C., there’s a lot more women’s tennis history where that came from.
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