Editor's Note: Before the introduction of computerized rankings on the WTA and ATP Tours, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were ranked No. 1 in 1957 and 1968, respectively.
Having first reached No. 5 in 1998, No. 3 in 1999 and No. 2 in 2001, it was on February 25, 2002 when Venus Williams finally got to No. 1 on the WTA rankings, and it was historic—she was the first African-American player, in either ATP or WTA rankings history, to ascend to the top spot.
To say that Venus reaching No. 1 was a long time coming would be an understatement. She had already won her first four Grand Slam titles at that point—Wimbledon and the US Open in 2000, then Wimbledon and the US Open again in 2001. She’s actually the only player in WTA rankings history to first get to No. 1 after winning four majors, all the other No. 1s doing it after three or fewer.
The wait was largely due to her somewhat limited schedule, but this time she was doing so much winning it didn’t matter. In the 12 months leading up to her ascent to No. 1 she won nine titles, including the aforementioned Wimbledon and US Open triumphs in 2001, and 56 of 61 matches.
Her hottest streak came in the summer of 2001, winning 24 of her last 25 matches, including 16 in a row to win San Diego, New Haven and the US Open. She won 32 of 33 sets in that run, dropping one set to Justine Henin in New Haven, and never lost more than four games in a set at the US Open.
“I think that if I had been No. 1 in the world and had not won any Grand Slams, it would be less of a significance. But having won Grand Slams, that really just makes it a lot more enjoyable, and I just feel like I deserve it,” Venus said at a media conference two days before she officially rose to No. 1.
“You know, being No. 1 in the world and winning Grand Slams and winning titles, that’s just all a part of having a successful career. I’ve worked hard, so I feel like I deserve a few perks there.”
And though the official computer rankings only began in the 1970s—1973 for the ATP, 1975 for the WTA—Venus was quick to point out she wasn’t the first African-American to dominate the sport.
“Well, it would be foolish to forget Althea Gibson, also. She was the first,” Venus said of the five-time Grand Slam champion, who won her first major at the 1956 French Open and then Wimbledon and the US Open in both 1957 and 1958, the same back-to-back sweep Venus achieved 43 years later.
The competition on the women’s tour was as tough as ever in 2002, with Jennifer Capriati having won three of the last five majors at that point and Serena coming on strong too, just weeks away from kicking off her first Serena Slam. Venus knew it was going to be tough to hang onto the top spot.
“Well, right now it’s just been great getting there, but it’s another thing staying there,” Venus said at the time. “So I just have to be dedicated, and more than anything I just need to keep enjoying the game, because if at any point it becomes a burden, at least to me, that’s when it's a problem.”
Over the next four and a half months, Venus would win 24 of 28 matches and bounce back and forth with Capriati between No. 1 and No. 2, until Serena planted herself at No. 1 after winning Wimbledon on July 8, 2002, becoming the second African-American in ATP or WTA rankings history to reach No. 1.
Fast forward to the present day, and they’re two of the three oldest players with a WTA ranking, with Serena being No. 1 as recently as 2017 and Venus being in the Top 5 as recently as 2018.