WATCH: 50 Years, 50 Heroes—Althea Gibson

As you might expect from an individual sport, tennis has had its share of independent-minded men and women who wished no part of hierarchy, dared to think differently and were willing to suffer the consequences in pursuit of their ambitions. The sport’s history is filled with tales of people who revolutionized everything from technique to equipment to the scoring system to the color of the tennis ball.

And then there’s Althea Gibson. While many of the sport’s innovators merely overcame resistance, Gibson fought past something far more dangerous: tennis’ longstanding culture of exclusion. Born in 1927, Gibson came of age and competed smack in the middle of America’s Jim Crow era of extensive segregation. Her Grand Slam debut took place at the U.S. National Championships (now the US Open) in 1950—only three years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, half a decade before Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott.

Aware as Gibson was that she was breaking barriers, her approach was low-key.

“I try not to flaunt my success as a Negro success,” she said. “It’s all right for others to make a fuss over my role as a trail blazer, and, of course, I realize its importance to others as well as to myself, but I can’t do it.”

Those words come from Gibson’s recently reissued 1960 autobiography, I Always Wanted To Be Somebody.


Everything was perfect and she moved with grace, power and purpose. That was the day she became my shero. Billie Jean King on meeting Gibson at 13 years old.

The book itself has taken an interesting journey. In 2019, Randy Walker, managing partner of publishing firm New Chapter Press, heard Billie Jean King recall how as a child she’d kept a copy of Gibson’s book under her pillow. Seeking to read it, Walker saw it was long out of print and that the only copy available could be obtained for $800.

“That was not right,” writes Walker in this new edition. “Fans and young people need to have the opportunity to read Althea’s story, in her own words, at a reasonable price.”

What drew King to Gibson was vintage Billie Jean: the pursuit of social justice, wed to first-rate tennis. When King was 12 years old, attending an event at the Los Angeles Tennis Club—then the red-hot center of the tennis universe—she wondered why everything from the clothing to the balls to the people was strictly white.

“From that moment on,” writes King in this edition’s foreword, “I committed my life to a life of equality for everyone.”

A year later, back at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, King saw Gibson up close for the first time. Writes King, “Everything was perfect and she moved with grace, power and purpose. That was the day she became my shero.”

I Always Wanted to Be Somebody is a compelling story, fueled by Gibson’s drive and perhaps, most of all, her ability to balance ambition with recognition of the segregated world she occupied. But by 1950, Gibson’s skill was becoming quite clear. The tennis community took notice. As Gibson writes, “Tennis people, by and large, are decent people, mannerly people. They knew that Jackie Robinson had been playing baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers for two seasons, that other Negro players were coming into the game in a steady stream, and that it was obvious that a great social change was in the making in this country.”


Gibson won eleven majors—five singles, five doubles, one mixed—and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.

Gibson won eleven majors—five singles, five doubles, one mixed—and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. 

Gibson’s quest to compete at major tournaments was greatly aided by a letter authored by former world No. 1 Alice Marble that appeared in the sport’s preeminent publication, American Lawn Tennis. Marble’s letter, writes Gibson, “kicked up a storm from one end of the tennis world to the other.” Gibson cites several passages from it, including, “At this moment tennis is privileged to take its place among the pioneers for a true democracy, if it will accept that privilege. if it declines to do so, the honor will fall to the next generation, perhaps but someone will break the ground. The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it has proven to be in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent.”

At last granted entry into the 1950 U.S. Nationals, Gibson made an impressive debut. In the second round, Gibson lost narrowly to reigning Wimbledon champion, Louise Brough, 9-7 in the third set.

There followed several years of hard work. By 1956, Gibson had blossomed. That spring, she won the singles at Roland Garros, making her the first Black player to win a major title. The next year was even better, Gibson winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. She repeated those victories in 1958. All told, she would earn eleven majors—five singles, five doubles, one mixed—and be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.

The final words of Gibson’s book are direct and powerful: “I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I just want to be reasonably successful and live a normal life with all the conveniences to make it so. I think I’ve already got the main thing I’ve always wanted, which is to be somebody, to have identity. I’m Althea Gibson, the tennis champion. I hope it makes me happy.”

Her struggles, accomplishments and presence inspired many, all the way to Gibson’s death in 2003 and continuing beyond.

“If people really learn her story, believe me, it will inspire them to do great things with their lives,” Serena Williams told the WTA in 2020. “For me, she was the most important pioneer for tennis. She was Black, she looked like me and she opened up so many doors.”