Life is all about timing and opportunity and the course that it takes is not always in your hands. Two things happened in the summer of 1960 that changed my life and I was vividly reminded of them, standing there alongside Billie Jean King and Katrina Adams at the unveiling of the Althea Gibson statue during the US Open.
The first concerned a dilemma Charles Wintour, the editor of the London Evening Standard, was facing on the Friday before Wimbledon that June day in 1960. He had signed up Gibson to write articles during the Championships, just as she had done the previous year. But the literary editor, who had ‘ghosted’ Althea’s copy in 1959, had made himself unavailable and Wintour had to find someone else at the eleventh hour.
More in desperation than anything, Wintour, whose daughter Anna, has become an icon in the fashion world and a devoted Roger Federer fan, turned to his Sports Editor and said, “Oh, you’ve got this young man joining us today. Give him to Althea!”
And, almost at that moment, in I walked. My first day on the job—a job that was supposed to entail writing about rowing in the summer and rugby union in the winter. Tennis was not on the agenda. Instead I was dispatched forthwith to Queen’s Club and told to introduce myself to the young woman who had made history in the previous years by becoming the first black player to win Wimbledon, which she did in 1957 and 1958.
I met her on the stairs leading up to the famous old club house, a tall elegant young woman dressed in black. She greeted me with a warm smile and on the following Monday afternoon, I found myself sitting next to her in the Wimbledon Centre Court press box, writing down everything she said.
In every imaginable way it was a leap into the unknown for me. I had barely said ‘Hello’ to a black person before, despite two years in the British Army where I seemed to remember seeing one or two black faces on the parade ground. And, apart from that, tennis was not a sport I had covered during my very early days in journalism with a Fleet Street sports agency. The previous year, while still in my officer’s uniform, I had watched Alex Olmedo, the Peruvian born American, beat a young man called Rod Laver in the men’s final on BBC television—in black and white, of course.
Now with the green Centre Court a matter of yards away, I was getting a crash course in the intricacies of the game as Althea dissected the strengths and weaknesses of the players she had faced a couple of years before—Darlene Hard, the American she had beaten in the 1957 final; Britain’s Angela Mortimer, her final opponent the following year and Brazil’s graceful Maris Bueno, her successor as champion. She talked about the greats of the men’s game, too, like that year’s champion, the left-handed Neale Fraser who, like Olmedo, kept the freckled-faced kid from Queensland at bay for one more year. After that Rod Laver was unstoppable.
The work was hectic as the Evening Standard had nine editions in those days and I was updating the copy I was writing from Althea’s thoughts for most of them. So there was not much time for socializing but, as we got to the halfway mark of the second week, we were on good enough terms for me to have the temerity to pose a question.
“Anyone taking you to the Wimbledon Ball?” I asked. I sort of knew the answer because she had had a tough enough time finding a doubles partner let alone finding a man willing to be her escort to a very traditional and very ‘white’ function at the swanky Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane.
Some people said it was courageous of me to do so but I never looked at it like that. It just seemed the natural thing to do. At any rate, she graciously accepted and, on the Saturday evening, I took her for a pre-dinner drink at my mother’s flat near Marble Arch, a short drive away. If my Mum was nervous it was simply before she had never interacted socially with a black person before. One just didn’t. It was the way it was. Not necessarily a question of prejudice (although there was plenty of that) but simply social separation.
Well, on this Saturday night, there would be none of that and after a nice, if slightly stilted chat, I took Althea off to the Grosvenor House where, to reach the Grand Ball Room one needs to descend a very grand circular staircase. It was not a first time for Althea, of course. As champion, she had opened the dancing with the male champion, Lew Hoad in 1957 and Ashley Cooper the following year. Stuffed shirt traditionalists, not to mention flat out racists, had tried not to choke over their champagne on those occasions because they had no alternative. But here she was, this stunning black woman, descending the stairs on the arm of some young pup of a reporter.
Strangely, I don’t remember being particularly nervous although I was well aware all eyes were on us. But Althea was used to crowds and had faced far worse ordeals. So we reached our table – the great couturier Ted Tinling was among those sitting near us – and we enjoyed our meal. I even plucked up courage to ask her for a dance, pocketing my pride due to the fact that, in her not very high heels, Althea was about an inch taller than my 6' 1” frame. I saw her infrequently in the ensuing years, primarily because Charles Wintour decided to pick up on the great popularity of another Wimbledon champion, Jaroslav Drobny who had settled in England after fleeing Czechoslovakia and he replaced Althea as the paper’s Wimbledon expert.
I kept in touch with her, mostly one step removed through Angela Buxton, the British player who, as a Jew, understood prejudice and stepped forward, offering to play doubles with Althea at Wimbledon in 1956. They won the title. Their instance success offered just another example of Althea’s talents which were multiple and ranged far beyond the tennis court. She sang in night clubs, starred with William Holden in The Horse Soldiers and played golf well enough to join the women’s pro tour. Later, she used her prestige and organizational ability to run Junior Athletic Programs in East Orange, N.J after a short lived term as New Jersey’s Athletic Commissioner, the first woman or African American to hold such a post. She left because of funding problems.
The statue, long overdue, which now adorns a corner of Arthur Ashe Stadium, means a great deal to a lot of people for very valid reasons. But, for me, it’s quite personal. If it wasn’t for Althea, I would be writing about some other sport.