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By Mark Preston, USTA.com
She just wanted to be somebody. For Althea Gibson, it was an equally simple and impossible quest. She had the talent, certainly. She was, as she many times described herself, “a born athlete.” But she also was born into a time when the color of your skin could limit your opportunities to showcase your talents.
Happily, dreams are without parameters, and Gibson never stopped dreaming. She held tight to the belief that if you had a champion’s fire burning inside you, no outside influence could dampen the flame. She believed that with dreams and desire as fuel, that fire might just become so bright that it couldn’t be ignored.
She was right.
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, this brilliant young woman, born to sharecroppers in South Carolina and raised in Harlem, cast her singular glow upon the sport of tennis as the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships.
Gibson’s 1950 debut at Forest Hills at age 23 was at once historic and prophetic. When a thunderstorm interrupted her second-round match against Wimbledon champion Louise Brough, a bolt of lightning separated one of the monumental stone eagles from its perch atop the stadium, sending it crashing to the ground. Afterward, Gibson said: “It may have been an omen that times were changing.”
Change came gradually, as did success. A year after her Forest Hills debut, Gibson became the first black athlete to play at Wimbledon. She won her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1956. The following year – and the year after that – she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships.
In all, Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles, adding six doubles crowns to her singles success. But true champions are defined by more than trophy counts. They are defined by fortitude and courage, by heart and desire. All of these things were personified by Gibson.
Through her talents and tenacity, Gibson opened doors and opened minds. That is the highest of achievements. Because of that, we remember Althea Gibson as somebody – somebody special.