Before there was Venus and Serena Williams, there were other Black female tennis stars who shined on the national spotlight. Many people know of Althea Gibson’s success as the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam tennis championship. But there were others, like Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil, who achieved success at the highest level of tennis before the Williams sisters.
Lori McNeil was born on December 18, 1963 in San Diego, Ca. Her mother was a tennis aficionado so McNeil grew up playing. Raised in Houston, Texas she would share public courts with Garrison, who went on to become a tennis champion herself. In 1986, she and Garrison made history as the first two African-Americans to face each other in a major professional tennis championship at the Eckerd Open. McNeil won it in three sets.
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McNeil, whose father, Charlie McNeil, was a defensive back for the San Diego Chargers, played tennis for Oklahoma State University for two years, going pro in 1983. She would play on the tour for 19 years, alongside stalwarts of the era like Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Garrison. While she never achieved a Grand Slam singles title, McNeil played both singles and doubles on the pro tour, winning several different tournaments in doubles with various partners including Garrison, Navratilova, Spanish star Arantza Sánchez Vicario and Puerto Rican player Gigi Fernández.
McNeil is also credited for some stunning upsets – beating then superstar Graf twice – including the first round of Wimbledon in 1994 when Graf was the defending champion. McNeil won a mixed doubles Grand Slam championship at the French Open with Jorge Lazano in 1988.
After her retirement from the pro tour in 2002, McNeil went on to success as a tennis coach, at one point working with Garrison at her Houston tennis academy and with the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. Since her retirement, other Black female tennis players including Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Alexandra Stevenson have played in and won numerous Grand Slam tournaments, along with the record-setting Williams sisters.
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