Alison van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen - Making history at Wimbledon
When Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen teamed up in the women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 2019, they did something that nobody had ever done. An openly gay couple had never played on court together at a Grand Slam, and with Billie Jean King at Wimbledon and 30,000 people at London’s Pride celebration down the road, this combined for a hyper visible showing of an LGBTQ+ relationship in elite sport
Tennis is a sport known for depending on yourself; a quality that originally drew Greet Minnen into the game over team sports like football. But Minnen and Alison Van Uytvanck have also made strides in the sport by depending on each other. They sat down with Eurosport’s podcast ‘Raw’ to discuss their careers and the impact they have made on LGBTQ+ representation in tennis by being the first openly out lesbian couple to play doubles together at Wimbledon.
Both athletes were born and raised in Flemish speaking provinces of Belgium and after falling in love with tennis, they were both accepted into Belgium’s federation to intensely train, and eventually, meet and fall in love with each other. They became close in their late teenage years and began to depend on each other in an environment that was built on being separate and competitive. As a result, they kept their relationship a secret; scared about the reactions of others. But even their coaches had begun to catch on to their chemistry, and once they were solidified in a relationship in 2016, they decided to come out to their family.
Alison and Greet compete in the Ladies’ Doubles at Wimbledon in 2019
Big things had been happening for both of them on the court too. Van Uytvanck won her first WTA tournament in Taipei in 2013, and by 2015 had got all the way to the quarter finals at Roland-Garros. By 2018 they were on tour together, Minnen had won four ITF tournaments and Van Uytvanck beat the reigning champion Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon despite Muguruza being the huge favourite to win the match. It was there that they began to make headlines as a couple too, as after the victory, Van Uytvanck was congratulated and embraced by Minnen: “When I won the match, I hugged her and I told her let's have a kiss. And she was like, no, no, no. I said, come on, let's do it. And then she was like, okay, but I remember that time that somebody took it on a video or something and put it on social media. And I think we got a lot of likes and retweets and all these things. And we were like, woah, what is happening?!”
Their embrace caught the attention of the press and social media and they then continued to make big strides in showcasing LGBTQ+ representation in sport. Just a year after Van Uytvanck beat Muguruza, they made more history by becoming the first out same-sex couple to play together at Wimbledon. And while lots of the response to this was positive and uplifting, the reaction to them as LGBTQ+ sportswomen has not always been easy. A Youthworks study in 2020 revealed that homophobic and racist online abuse had trebled since 2015, and Minnen and Van Uytvanck have sadly not been immune to this. “You get these hate messages and even threats sometimes like threatening to kill your family and this and that. And it’s just crazy sometimes” they explain.
This abuse they have faced is even more upsetting when noting that lesbian representation in tennis has had a strong and progressive presence in tennis in comparison to other sports. In women’s tennis, there have already been LGBTQ+ trailblazers who have had to take on the pressure and attention of being the first in their sport, such as Billie Jean King who both Minnen and Van Uytvanck pay homage to: “We were just so lucky to have Billie Jean King and so many other great players who were gay and they really, yeah. They made it possible for us to come out and to be ourselves”
Billie Jean King and partner Ilana Kloss in the Royal Box at Wimbledon in 2019 (King and Kloss are also former doubles partners)
Image credit: Eurosport
This history was a massive help to Minnen and Van Uytvanck in being accepted in their sport, and yet they still are not safe from homophobic abuse. This indicates the extent of what other LGBTQ+ athletes may have to face in being the first to come out in their field. For example, even in men’s tennis, the only out player is Brian Valhu who came out ten years after retiring and attributed this to the "locker room" and homophobic culture that existed in men’s tennis while he was playing. It is a similar story in men’s football too, where the only out LGBTQ+ players in the English divisions are ones who have already retired, and where the tragic tale of Justin Fashanu - the only gay player in England to have come out while playing, who then committed suicide eight years after doing so - is a harrowing reminder of the dangerous and scary homophobic attitudes athletes may be met with if they do decide to be the first in their sport to come out.
Research also shows the struggles to come out to teammates at community level as well. Out On The Fields’ 2015 report found that 81% of gay men and 74% of lesbians who were under 22 reported being "completely or partially in the closet to teammates while playing youth sport", showing how hidden LGBTQ+ sexuality is across a variety of sports. But there have also been some encouraging signs. ICM research found that nine in ten people would be either ‘proud’ or ‘neutral’ if their favourite player came out as gay, and that the majority of people think that "offensive language towards LGBT people in sport is a problem (59 per cent), with young people more likely to identify it as a ‘big problem’". And Minnen and Van Uytvanck have also noticed this support and increasing encouragement in the reaction they received after their kiss at Wimbledon, noting that a man recognised Alison and told her that the celebratory kiss had made people feel more comfortable to come out: "It's nice to hear that somebody actually, felt comfortable coming out after seeing these things happen, which is actually also our goal, yeah, it’s amazing if you can inspire people to be themselves."
Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in sport have come a long way, and pioneers like Billie Jean King have led the way for people like Minnen and Van Uytvanck to feel comfortable and accepted in their sport. While women’s tennis is lucky to have such incredible role models, not every sport has reached that level of acceptance yet, and much more work is needed so that whoever does decide to be the next ‘first’ in their sport, will be able to do so of their own accord, free from abuse and with plenty of other people around them to depend on.