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Creating a trail when one didn’t exist: Happy Birthday, Althea Gibson
Said Billie Jean King in 2019, “She was beautiful and graceful and intimidating all at the same time on the court.”
Published Aug 25, 2021
FROM THE ARCHIVES: "She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis"
When you talk about tennis pioneers, none stand taller than Althea Gibson. This eleven-time Grand Slam champion created a trail when one didn’t exist. Born in Silver, S.C. on August 25, 1927, Gibson and her family moved to Harlem when she was three years old. Rapidly she took to sports. Even before her teens, Gibson excelled at paddle tennis. A man named Buddy Walker saw this talented and driven young woman and handed her a tennis racquet. Soon after came lessons, competition and hour after hour of practice.
Of course, all of this took place in a highly segregated America. There was no way then Gibson could play at such prestigious facilities as the West Side Tennis Club or any similar clubs that dotted the American tennis landscape. But there was Harlem’s prominent tennis venue, The Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. And from there, Gibson got the chance to compete in a series of tournaments run by the American Tennis Association – a circuit she dominated for years.
A major moment came in 1950, when former world number one Alice Marble wrote an emphatic letter in American Lawn Tennis, then the sport’s leading magazine, demanding that the USLTA let Gibson compete at the U.S. Nationals (the precursor US Open). “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players,” wrote Marble, “it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge.”
Gibson’s first effort was strong. In the second round, she pushed reigning Wimbledon champion Louise Brough to the limit, losing that match, 9-7 in the third set.
There followed years of education—both on and off the court. In 1953, Gibson was ranked seventh in the U.S. That same year, she graduated from Florida A&M University.
A year later, though, she fell out of the top ten. In 1955, a discouraged Gibson made plans to retire. As she wrote in her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, “I’m just not good enough. I’m probably never going to be.”
But the chance to compete as part of a State Department trip to Southeast Asia that fall greatly boosted Gibson’s confidence. By 1956, the quality of her tennis soared, Gibson’s aggressive serve-and-volley game kicking into high gear. Gibson won Roland Garros that year, become the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title. In 1957, she won Wimbledon and Forest Hills, a feat she repeated the next year.
There followed a brief pro career. So skilled was Gibson that she also become a first-rate golfer, becoming on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. Later, Gibson worked as a tennis instructor.
Gibson died in 2003. Sixteen years later, on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Center, a sculpture of her was unveiled. King recalled devouring Gibson’s autobiography as a child and deeply admiring her playing style. “She was beautiful and graceful and intimidating all at the same time on the court,” King added. “When she came to net, she was very intimidating. I’ve said to Venus [Williams], she was like a 21st century Althea.
Former USTA president Katrina Adams, who helped lead the effort to create the sculpture, also paid tribute. “Today, we honor Althea’s journey, we honor her success, we honor her courage,” said Adams. “We salute the path that she paved for me and for all other persons of color—including the great Arthur Ashe—by unveiling this incredible monument in the shadow of the stadium that bears his name. Today, we unveil a monument that will honor the courage and commitment of the great Althea Gibson for generations to come.”