By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y., Aug. 26 -- A half-century ago, New York City threw a tickertape parade for the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper whose name is often overlooked in contemporary conversations about the country's great athletes and whose achievements in breaking her sport's color barrier have often been overshadowed.
On Monday night, the tennis world will try to set things right as the 2007 U.S. Open gets under way, paying tribute to the late Althea Gibson with a star-studded celebration of the former champion's achievements -- as well as those of numerous black women in other disciplines -- on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court.
Gibson, who would have turned 80 this past Saturday, will be inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Among others to be honored during the celebration called "Breaking Barriers": former Washington mayor Sharon Pratt, Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson, poet Nikki Giovanni, Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who will perform.
Afterward, Venus and Serena Williams, who share four U.S. Open titles between them, will take the stadium court in succession for their opening-round matches. Venus, the tournament's 12th seed, will face Hungarian qualifier Kira Nagy. The eighth-seeded Serena, who has not competed since injuring her left thumb in a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon on July 4, opens against Angelique Kerber of Germany.
While much has been written about the formidable odds the Williams sisters faced while growing up in Compton, Calif., Gibson faced challenges that are almost impossible for modern-era athletes and fans to fathom. She was reared in a welfare-dependent home in Harlem, took little interest in school and ran away more than once. And her athletic gifts likely would have gone undeveloped had it not been for the American Tennis Association, founded in 1916 to introduce the sport to African American youngsters and give them a chance to play tournaments in an era when tournaments were "whites-only" affairs.
After winning 10 consecutive ATA singles championships, Gibson became the first African American to compete in the U.S. Championships (later renamed the U.S. Open) in Forest Hills in 1950. The next year she became the first African American to compete at Wimbledon. In 1956 she became the first African American to win a major championship, the French Open. And in 1957, she became the first African American to win the U.S. Championships -- claiming both the singles and doubles titles -- and was feted by the tickertape parade.
But even then, tennis didn't pay the bills. It was an amateur sport. And Gibson was forced to adopt other pursuits to make ends meet. She dabbled in acting, joined the pro golf tour and later toured as a celebrity with the Harlem Globetrotters.
"I was born too soon," Gibson was quoted as saying later in life.
Fifty years later, few African Americans have followed the lead of Gibson, who died in 2003.
Richmond native Arthur Ashe, whose career also was nurtured by the ATA, became the first black man to win the U.S. Open (1968), Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975). But it took more than 40 years for a black woman to replicate Gibson's achievements. Serena Williams became the second African American woman to win the U.S. Open in 1999; Venus, the second to win Wimbledon in 2000.
"I always wanted to be somebody," Gibson once said. "If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me."