Ora Washington wins eighth American Tennis Association singles title
It is an instructive insight into the marginalised lives of pioneering black women in the United States that Ora Washington, a serial champion in two sports, had no birth certificate to record her entrance into the world around the turn of the 20th century nor, when her time finally came to be inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976, did the organisers realise that she had been dead for five years.
Instead there was an empty chair at the ceremony in New York while her list of accomplishments was read out: eight American Tennis Association singles titles, 12 women’s and three mixed doubles championships; as a centre, leading scorer and captain she won one Colored Women’s Basketball World Championship with the Germantown Hornets before moving to the strongest team in the country, Philadelphia Tribune in 1932, where she accrued 11 more in successive seasons.
As far as we can tell, Washington was born in Virginia in 1899 and moved to Philadelphia in the Great Migration during the second decade of the new century. Working as a maid, she took up tennis first at the Germantown YMCA, a club reserved for non-white women, as late as 1924. She started serious tournament play in 1925, winning the ATA women’s doubles at her first attempt with Lulu Ballard. In 1929 she won the first of seven successive singles titles at the ATA, established in 1916 because the US Lawn Tennis Association refused to allow black players to compete, and, having succumbed to sunstroke in 1936 recovered to win it back one last time the following year.
Little footage exists of her tennis career, but contemporary reports describe a unique grip, holding the racket high up the handle, and a game based on a heavy slice with forehand and backhand, speed around the court and dominant overhead strokes. Arthur Ashe wrote that “she may have been the best female athlete ever” but because of segregation, received almost no coverage outside the AfricanAmerican newspapers, which anointed her “The Queen of Two Courts”.
Washington, along with her great ATA rivals Isadore Channels, Lucy Slowe and Ballard, all fought for the recognition they felt they would only receive by beating Helen Wills, winner of eight singles titles at Wimbledon, four French Opens and seven at the US Nationals (now known as the US Open), from which they were barred. Wills always refused, claiming in the years before her death that she turned down offers to play Washington at Madison Square Garden to protect her amateur status.