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    Tennis’ LGBT Following, Both on and Off the Court

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    1960s: “Go Billie Jean!”

    1970s: “Go Martina!”

    1980s: “Go Gabriela!”

    1990s: “Go Monica!”

    2000s: “Go Venus!”

    Today: “Go Serena!”

    These names need no introduction for even a fringe LGBT sports fan. Why do so many gay and lesbian athletes adore, admire and imitate tennis players, specifically top women tennis icons? Tennis is such an individual sport where you earn the fame of each glory, all by yourself, and suffer the agony of each fall, all by yourself. The nature of the sport creates strong, independent men and women where players learn to manage their emotions, strategies, growth and choices on their own.

    Tennis is the one sport where competitors face, not only their opponents, but also the conditions, the environment, the surface, their physical fitness, and, most importantly, themselves. For these reasons, former champion Arthur Ashe–Citizen of the World–truly believed tennis helps people navigate themselves and the globe by instilling such essential life skills. For these reasons, top professional tennis players are revered and are given national hero status in their respective nations.

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    “Gay men are naturally attracted to strong women, and women tennis players who make it to the top are some of the strongest women role models we know and love,” explained Mike Schement, a life-long tennis player and fan. This was especially true when the strongest of the strong were the very best, including social and equality trailblazer Billie Jean King, record-setting openly gay Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles (who survived an on court stabbing), and Serena Williams, who has broken down racial barriers to become one of the best tennis players of all time.

    Many LGBT admirers see a lot of themselves in these past and present champions. We see their rise to the absolute pinnacle despite all of the challenges and obstacles presented to them. They give us hope and strength. These champions have an incredible unwavering resolve, and somehow can draw even more strength from within when opponents and life knock them down.

    “This is what LGBT people look up to,” says Tim Thianthai, an avid tennis player for the last four years. When Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs, we celebrated not just a tennis victory, but also a victory for women and equality. When Monica screamed in pain, we fell to the ground with her. When Martina cried alone, our own tears understood her. When Serena won, we stood taller, stronger and better!

    Locally there are hundreds upon hundreds of Martina’s, Serena’s, and Monica’s in the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Federation of San Francisco (GLTF) who all faced many obstacles as LGBT people. But they’ve all come together for the love of tennis and their tennis icons. Led by Dennis Sanchez, GLTF President, the club is over 500 strong with players at the beginning level to the most advanced. In fact, GLTF and the international Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance had their humble beginnings on the 15th Street Public Tennis Court (now known as ground zero of gay and lesbian organized sports movement) in San Francisco. Born out of realizing the importance of healthier living during the AIDS epidemic in 1980, Les Balmain and the first gay sports newspaper (The Gladiator) held a tennis clinic at the 15th Street courts to encourage LGBT tennis and sports participation. From there, gay and lesbian tennis has grown to become one of the largest organized LGBT sports in the world.

    Steve Scowden, the club’s Communications Director, proudly intimated “we are an all inclusive and [wallet friendly] tennis club.” Scowden added that “aside from leagues, tournaments, social play, beginner clinics and cups (unique competition format against other major West Coast cities), since 1980 SFGLTA annually runs the first and historic national gay open tournament USGO (United States Gay Open) during Memorial Day Weekend at Golden Gate Park.” USGO offers competitive divisions at various levels and gives players a chance to meet LGBT tennis buffs from all over the U.S. and the world. Everyone is encouraged to play, even beginners!

    You’ve admired Martina, Billie Jean and Serena from afar. And you’ve seen everyone—men, women, seniors, kids, transgender people, dykes, drag queens, bears, chickens, wheelchair-using athletes and more—at your local tennis courts chasing down a cross court forehand, giving a stern talking to themselves, grunting loudly as they unleash a fierce 20 mph serve, pumping a fist, and getting a great workout. Contact GLTF of San Francisco, info below, and get your tennis game on, and don’t forget to buy all those really trendy (Serena’s cat suit or Venus’s denim skirt), tight (or baggy) tennis outfits and accessories to go with your big colorful racket!

    For more info on GLTF of San Francisco, including leagues, social play, beginner’s clinic, cup competitions and the USGO, please visit or e-mail You can also request to join GLTF on Facebook.

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.