Althea Gibson
(b. 1927)

Previous page | Her historic debut at Forest Hills in 1950 was against Louise Brough, who had won the previous three Wimbledons. After being thrashed 6-1 in the first set, Gibson won the second set 6-3 and was leading 7-6 in the third when a thunderstorm halted play. On resumption of play the next day Gibson's game fell apart.

She was a 5-foot-11 right-hander, extremely athletic, had good foot speed, a strong serve and preferred to play an attacking game, but she had to fine-tune her game in the face of stiffer competition.

It was not until 1956 that she broke through, as she became more consistent on the base line. She became the first black woman to win the French Open. Unfortunately, this was her only appearance at the French. She also won the women's doubles at the French and became the first black to win at Wimbledon by capturing the women's doubles title there.

In 1957 and 1958 she reigned supreme, ranking number 1 in the world and voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. Her bumper year was in 1957: she won Wimbledon and the US title, adding the women's doubles at the former and the mixed doubles at the latter. At Wimbledon, the United Press reported that "Althea had command of her game right from the start. The rangy New Yorker with the best serve in women's tennis dropped her service only once." In 1958, she repeated at Wimbledon and at Forest Hills, where she also won her third Grand Slam women's doubles title.

Despite her success on the court, the specter of segregation hounded her. She was still barred from some clubs where prestigious tournaments were played.

After retiring from tennis, Gibson toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing exhibition games to open for the basketball troupe. In 1964, she then turned to professional golf, joining the Ladies Professional Golf Association. In 1971, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In its inaugural year of 1980, she was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.

Although she did not see herself this way, Althea Gibson was a pioneer. She displayed her strength of character and maintained her remarkable composure in the face of extreme prejudice. As the wall of racism crumbled, tennis unwillingly conceded and Althea stepped in to fulfill her destiny. In so doing, she paved the way for blacks in tennis from Arthur Ashe to the Williams sisters.

She once said, "I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders. Now I'm playing tennis to please me, not them." That statement is subject to interpretation but, Althea, you did play for them.
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Althea Gibson, Tom Biracree, Holloway House Pub. Co., 1990.
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Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (eds.), Indiana University Press, 1994.
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Changing the Game: The Stories of Tennis Champions Alice Marble and Althea Gibson, Sue Davidson, Seal Press Feminist Pub., 1997.
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A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete Since 1946, Arthur Ashe Jr., Warner Books Inc., 1988.
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I Always Wanted to be Somebody, Althea Gibson, Harper Collins, 1958.
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Women in Sports: The Complete Book on the World's Greatest Female Athletes, Joseph Layden, General Pub. Group, 1998.
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