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Althea Gibson

[Aug. 25, 1927 - Sept. 28, 2003]

Like many facets of society, tennis, too, was once segregated. In March of 1948, a New York physician, Dr. Reginald Weir, became the first black person to play in a USTA (known then as the USLTA -- U.S. Lawn Tennis Association) national championship tournament.

That was a significant breakthrough for blacks, but it did not quite measure up to Jackie Robinson entering major league baseball in 1947. For that, a black American would have to play in the U.S. National Championships, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the country. That would truly be breaking the color barrier in tennis.

Two black physicians, Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, N.C., and Dr. Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Va., -- both avid tennis players -- found the person to break that barrier in Althea Gibson.

Gibson, who moved to New York City at age 3, having been born in Silver, S.C., took up tennis after already being a Police Athletic League paddle tennis champion. She was introduced to tennis by PAL Director Buddy Walker. Her aptitude for the sport soon led to an honorary membership in Harlem's prestigious Cosmopolitan Tennis Club.

In 1944, Gibson won her first American Tennis Association (the black counterpart to the USLTA) junior national championship. Two years later, having lost in the final of the ATA women's national championship, Dr. Johnson approached Gibson.

Her impact on the tennis establishment was realized within just a few years under the two doctors' tutelage. At the 1950 USLTA National Indoors, Gibson became the first black person to be seeded and the first to reach the final of a national championship tournament. Later that year, she played the USLTA National Clay Courts, losing to eventual champion Doris Hart in the quarterfinals. Then Gibson played her first important grass court tournament, the Eastern Grass Court Championships at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, N.J.

The Eastern Grass Courts were essential if Gibson was to play in the USLTA National Championships. There was a general feeling that the USLTA would not accept her entry if her grass court play wasn't proven. Such sentiment - and the accompanying undertones - rallied legendary U.S. champion Alice Marble to Gibson's aid. Marble, in an editorial in the July edition of the magazine American Lawn Tennis, blasted the USLTA, writing, "If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites."

On Aug. 25, 1950, Gibson's 23rd birthday, history was made as she became the first black person to play in the USLTA National Championships (now known as the U.S. Open). The crowd for Gibson's first-round match against Barbara Knapp was one of the largest ever for the time. A predominantly black crowd, they saw Gibson win 6-2, 6-2.

But it was Gibson's second-round match against three-time Wimbledon champion Louise Brough that showed everyone Gibson was a future champion. Gibson led Brough 1-6, 6-3, 7-6, needing just one game to win the match, when along came a storm so severe lightning knocked a cement eagle from atop the stadium.

Brough won the match upon its conclusion the next day. But, Gibson said later of that day, "When lightning put down that eagle, maybe it was an omen that times was changing."

Indeed they were. In 1951, before becoming the first black American to play at Wimbledon, Gibson won her first international title, the Caribbean Championship in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Gibson won her first major singles title in 1956 at the French Championships, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The bigger breakthrough, however, came the following year when she won Wimbledon (Gibson had won the doubles title the year before. In all, she won the Wimbledon doubles title three years in a row with three different partners). Her singles victory was such a momentous achievement, Gibson was given a ticker-tape parade along Broadway in New York City.

She then won the women's singles title at the U.S. National Championships. Having basically broken the color barrier for tennis in the United States seven years before, she essentially danced on all memories of such barrier.

Queen Elizabeth presented Gibson with the Wimbledon trophy, and Vice President Richard Nixon presented her with the U.S. Nationals trophy, filled with white gladioli and red roses.

As legendary tennis writer Allison Danzig wrote for The New York Times, "The girl who was playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem some 15 years ago, found herself, at the age of 30, at the pinnacle of tennisdom . . ."

Gibson, clearly the No. 1 women's player in the world, successfully defended both titles in 1958, then retired, having been named Female Athlete of the Year for 1957 and 1958. She had won 56 singles and doubles as an amateur. In 1959, she turned pro.

In the year off, Gibson enjoyed a brief singing career and wrote her autobiography, I Always Wanted To Be Somebody. Gibson continued with groundbreaking achievements even after her pro tennis career. After trying the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour in the mid-'60s, she was named New Jersey State athletic commissioner in 1975. Gibson was the first woman in the nation to hold such a post.

In 1991, the NCAA honored Gibson with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the organization's highest honor. Again, she was the first woman ever to receive this distinguished honor.

On Sept. 28, 2003, Althea died of respiratory failure at a hospital in East Orange, the working-class suburb of Newark where she had been living a very private life for decades. At the age of 76, Gibson was already enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and she had been further immortalized in 1998 when the International Tennis Federation introduced the Althea Gibson Cup, an international team tennis competition for women age 70 and older. Also in 1998, the Althea Gibson Foundation was created to provide sports opportunities to inner-city youth. The Foundation deals with education as well as sports and awards scholarships.

Just prior to her death, Althea was inducted into the International Women's Hall of fame along with Rosalynn Carter, Lucille Ball and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Althea was the African American mother of tennis. She worked with and inspired all that followed her, and it is her record that is being reached today by the Williams sisters.

 
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