Middle States

Tennis History: Ora Washington

February 01, 2023

What better way to kick off Black History Month than by looking back at one of the most historical figures in our sport? 


Ora Washington may not be a household name, but she certainly should be. While not as publicly recognized as Ashe, Gibson, King, Federer or Williams, Washington was a dominant player in her time, and had a level of significance in the tennis world that’s tough to match.


Washington began her tennis career in the Germantown section of Philadelphia at a local Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). After her sister’s death, Washington found an outlet for her grief on the tennis court. Within a year of picking up the sport, she entered her first national tournament for black players and won it. 

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Washington had a powerful serve and overhead, along with tremendous quickness. She also had a bit of an unorthodox stroke (she held the racquet above the grip and stabbed at the ball with a short poke), making her a tough competitor in almost every setting. Washington won a total of 23 American Tennis Association (ATA) National Championships: eight singles, 12 doubles, and three mixed doubles titles. She held the ATA’s national crown from 1929-1936, often going years without a single loss to her record. 


At the height of her talents, however, Washington never had a chance to compete in certain matches.

One match that never happened could have been epic: playing against the top-ranked player from the U.S. at the time, Helen Wills Moody. Washington reportedly challenged Wills Moody on multiple occasions, but the duo never faced off. Their match remains one of tennis's most alluring might-have-beens.


It wasn’t until 1950 that tennis officially became desegregated when Althea Gibson played in the USLTA National Championships.


Washington’s success did not go unnoticed by the country. The Roosevelt administration, as part of Depression-era work and recovery programs, built hundreds of public tennis courts in urban areas where the game was unfamiliar. Future champions like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson — the first black man and woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — learned the game on those courts.


Washington not only paved the way for future tennis players, she did the same for the sport of basketball. Even though Washington did not play organized sports seriously until she was nearly twenty-five, she dominated tennis and basketball simultaneously. As a member of the Germantown Hornets beginning in 1930 (winning the national championship that year) and later a member of the Philadelphia Tribune Girls basketball team (winning 11 consecutive Women's Colored Basketball World Championships), Washington was said to be one of the best players in the world.


This distinction led to her induction into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976, Temple University’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1986, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. 


If you search for Washington, you find articles referencing her as “nearly forgotten,” “long ignored,” or “overlooked.” It’s about time we spend more effort sharing her name, her story and her legacy.

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