Twelve years ago today, Venus Williams became the first black female player to ascend to No. 1 since the introduction of the WTA Tour computer rankings in 1975. When she seized the top spot in 2002, Williams also saluted Althea Gibson, a 1950s star who was the first black player to win Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championship (now the U.S. Open).
“When you’re on a professional tour, you don’t aspire to be No. 3 or No. 2,” Venus said of her milestone. “Normally you do your best to become the best. At this point, I am the best player in the world, so that’s exciting and it’s going to be mine at least a week.”
Venus added: “I think the best part is that I’ve enjoyed myself along the way and that I have not limited myself just to playing tennis or made myself believe that that’s the only thing in life. I’ve always been doing things at the same time and having a career. For me, that’s the best part.”
Williams was the two-time reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion at the time, but a limited playing schedule had complicated her climb to No. 1. After winning four of her last five tournaments in 2001 to finish the year at No. 3, though, Venus packed her schedule through the first two months of the 2002 season and dominated. Then 21, Venus won three of her first four tournaments and made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to finally give her enough points to unseat Jennifer Capriati for the top spot on Feb. 25, 2002. (Capriati fell to second, followed by Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters; Serena was ninth.)
Venus held No. 1 for 11 non-consecutive weeks in 2002, the only year she was on top in her career. She debuted in 1994 and played her first full season in 1997.
Meanwhile, 2002 was also the year of Serena’s rise. Serena defeated Venus in the final of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the younger Williams supplanted Venus at No. 1 after Wimbledon.