2020 Black History Month:

Gibson's Forest Hills debut, 1950

Mark Preston  |  February 5, 2020
Tennis pioneer Althea Gibson

The long and storied history of tennis in the U.S. features a multitude of significant chapters authored by African-Americans. From the sport’s earliest days through its modern era, countless contributions to tennis’ growth and success have been made by players, coaches and administrators of color. Some helped tear down barriers; some have torn up record books. Several have transcended the sport they helped to build to become true American icons. All have been an inspiration, providing this sport, those who play it and those who revel in it, with myriad memorable moments.


As we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, recalls some of the most memorable of those important moments; milestones that helped to change the face of this sport—literally and figuratively—and inspire us all to raise our game. ADVERTISEMENT Today, we look at Althea Gibson's Forest Hills debut in 1950.


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. And she was right.


Three years after the great 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. Her 1950 debut at Forest Hills at age 23 was at once historic and prophetic. When a violent thunderstorm interrupted her second-round match against that year’s 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.”

Although Brough won that match by a narrow 6-1, 3-6, 9-7 decision, it was nonetheless a milestone moment—both for the desegregation of a sport and the ascendance of Gibson’s career. 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. Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles in all, adding six doubles crowns to her singles success.


Tennis is, of course, an individual sport, but perhaps no one has ever been so alone on a tennis court as Althea Gibson. She was a trailblazer of great talent and greater courage. Like Robinson, she was flesh-and-blood proof that the color of one’s skin ought not to limit one’s dreams. She was the first of her race to compete at such a high level, and being first—at anything—is never an easy task. She dreamed and she dared with equal conviction. Because of that, she became the epitome of all things possible.



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