The Williams Sisters: Straight out of Compton

Article | March 18, 2017

Billy Thomas, MD, MPH, Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Professor of Pediatrics

For about 2 weeks in January I spent an hour or so each day catching up on the result of the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. As usual my primary interest was to follow the course of the Williams sisters – Venus and Serena – as they participated in the tournament.  Theirs is an amazing story and one that may never be duplicated and certainly not equaled. Both are the product of a dream of excellence by their parents – more so their father, Richard Williams. Although both were born elsewhere – their story began in Compton, California. Somehow, their father Richard had a vision of their becoming not just professional tennis players but the number one tennis players in the world.  So he read books, studied the game and taught himself how to play tennis. He was their teacher, coach and mentor. Why tennis? Historically tennis has been viewed as a game of the well-to-do. The overall cost of equipment, the cost of instruction and coaching – and maybe more importantly, access to courts – have been barriers to individuals from lower income families getting into the game. Although there were African-American tennis players prior to the Williams sisters, my guess is their father asked himself the question and answered by saying, “Why not tennis?”

For the past two decades, the Williams sisters have dominated the sport of tennis, with winning multiple singles, doubles and Olympic titles. Serena now has a total of 23 grand slam singles titles, second only Margaret Court’s record of 24. It is a record Serena will soon eclipse.  Both sisters have suffered career-threatening injuries and health issues along with personal and family tragedies. Yet somehow they have persisted and maintained an amazing level of play that has dominated the sport and has them ranked number 1 and 8 in the world.

Although I have watched many of their matches, I’m always nervous when I do. I think the part that I like most is the post-match interview. Win or lose, both are always considerate, aware, gracious, humble, independent, appreciative, and maybe most important, honest. Given the current social climate and what seems to be an increasing gender gap in compensation, they serve as excellent role models for not just African-American females but for any one, male or female.

February is Black History Month and as such I thought it would be good to highlight an African-American sports figure, in this case, Venus and Serena Williams. Our society being what it is and placing such high premiums on sports and athletes I thought it would be appropriate to focus on what are now two legendary sports figures. Historically sports in American has been a vehicle for many individuals as immigrants, free men or newly freed slaves to find their way out of poverty and attain some level of economic mobility. The first great sport was boxing. Success in the boxing ring provided a way out of poverty and hope for a better life. To a limited degree, it gave access to mainstream society. For many years this was the route to a better life taken by many African-American athletes. However, as other sports became popular, racial segregation gave way to economic gain and integration became the law of the land, African-American athletes were allowed to participate in, and is some cases, dominate many sports, including tennis.

For those whose acclaim goes beyond their achievement in sports, these African-American athletes excel not only because of their physical prowess, but more importantly, their drive and persistence in pursuing the common good and what is fair, equitable and just. This includes figures like Muhammad Ali who transcended sports and became a world figure and Curt Flood who challenged baseball’s reserve clause which essentially made players property of a baseball team (1). Players were either traded by the team or forced to retire. Players had no input or control. One can only imagine the degree of racism, discrimination and perhaps in some cases implicit bias that enable many baseball teams to control the careers and fate of many players of color. His legal challenge eventually resulted in a 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowing free agency in baseball and now in all sports. All player are no longer property of the team owner.

Before Venus and Serena, there was tennis great Althea Gibson. She was not only a top tennis player, but also a solid professional golfer after her tennis career ended. The accomplishments of Gibson are too numerous to count. Suffice it to say that all of her accomplishments were the first of their kind – first African-American player to set foot on the U.S. Open tennis courts (1950), first African-American player at Wimbledon (1951), first African-American player to win the French Open (1956), and the first African-American player to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (1957) (2). All were very difficult tasks compounded by racial, educational and economic segregation supported and enforced by Jim Crow laws that mandated a “separate but equal” status for African Americans. In addition, during the peak of her career there was no or very little prize money attached to major tennis titles. Players received financial support from either personal benefactors or public and private endorsements – none of which were available to Ms. Gibson. She truly played for the love of the game.

Athletes are in a unique position and given a platform from which they can influence how we view and accept or reject social change. What happens in sports offers us a glimpse of society. I view Venus and Serena Williams in the same light as many past African-American sports figures. It is not just their on-court accomplishments. Both, more so Venus, have been very active in challenging, and to some degree, overcoming the large gender gap in prize money in professional sports (3). Although tennis has the smallest prize money gap, female tennis players continue to make only 80% of what men make, matching the gender pay gap in the US workforce.  In the professional tennis circuit, the gap between the top 100 women and the top 100 men is $120,624 (4). In academic medicine, the percentage gap is a tad less:  Women earn 90 cents for every dollar earned by men, but that translates to a not-insignificant pay difference of $21,000 to $27,000 annually. This difference is present across basic science, medical specialties, surgical specialties and generalist (5). The intersect of race and gender only serves to widen the gap with black female physicians earning less than their white female counterparts and considerably less than both white and black male physicians (6).

Venus and Serena played each other for the 9th time in a Grand Slam Tennis final – the 2017 Australian Open. Serena won the match 6-4, 6-4. It was a victory for both, for tennis, for professional sports, for all of America. Both the male and female winners of the Australian Open received $2.67 million (7). All Grand Slam events now have equal prize money for men and women.

We should all take a page from the tennis play book and move towards equal pay for equal work regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity. The next several years will be difficult for all of America but I think if we borrow from the sports world and aspire to be honest, inclusive, visionary and equitable we will do more than just survive we will move closer to a society that values and embraces the fact that all men and women are created equal………

  1. How Curt Flood Changed Baseball and Killed His Career in the Process, The Atlantic Daily, Allen Barra, July 12, 2011.
  2. Althea Gibson – Wikipedia <>. Accessed February 10, 2017.
  3. The inspiring story of how Venus Williams helped win equal pay for women players at Wimbledon. Anjanna Sreedhar, New York times, July 10, 2015.
  4. Roger Federer, $731,000; Serena Williams, $495,000: The Pay Gap in Tennis. By Ben Rothenberg, New York Times, April 12, 2016.
  5. Freund KM, et. al. Inequities in Academic Compensation by Gender: A Follow-up to the National Faculty Survey Cohort Study. Academic Medicine, Vol. 91, No. 8 / August 2016.
  6. Ly DP, Seabury SA, Jena AB. Differences in incomes of physicians in the United States by race and sex: observational study. BMJ 2016; 353:i2923.
  7. Australian Open Tennis 2017 Prize Money. Total purse increased to record AUD$50 million. <>. Accessed February 8, 2017.