2019 Year in Review:

Althea Gibson sculpture unveiled

Mark Preston  |  December 19, 2019
Althea Gibson statue was unveiled at the 2019 US Open.

As 2019 draws to a close, is taking a look back at the top storylines, headlines and highlights from the year in American tennis. Here, we look at a milestone moment for the USTA and the US Open—the unveiling of a statue honoring the pioneering champion Althea Gibson on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

On an unusually cool and crisp August morning, just as play was beginning around the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Day 1 of the 2019 US Open, a large crowd gathered in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium for a very special occasion: the unveiling of a statue honoring the pioneering champion Althea Gibson.


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. ADVERTISEMENT 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.”

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. Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles in all, adding six doubles crowns to her singles success. But, of course, champions—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 in Gibson. All of these things are required of pioneers.

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.

Gibson passed away in 2003 at the age of 76, but will now have a permanent place of honor on the grounds of the NTC, the home of the US Open.

“Today, we honor Althea’s journey, we honor her success, we honor her courage,” said former USTA President Katrina Adams as the sculpture—created by artist Eric Goulder—was unveiled. “Today, 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.”


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