How Two Outsiders -- One Black, the Other Jewish -- Forged a Friendship and Made Sports History

By Bruce Schoenfeld

Amistad. 304 pp. $24.95

Women's tennis has been popular for so long now -- certainly since Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs 31 years ago -- that it's easy to forget what an elite and marginalized sport it once was. Before Venus and Serena Williams were born, let alone became millionaire champions, Althea Gibson won Wimbledon and the U.S. championships only to discover that she could not make a decent living as a full-time black female athlete in a sport that permitted only amateur, lily-white competition.

Journalist Bruce Schoenfeld wants to set the record straight -- and, thanks to this valuable book, he succeeds. His dual portrait of Gibson and her Jewish doubles partner and friend, the Englishwoman Angela Buxton, illuminates a vanished era of women's tennis. It began right after World War II, long after the halcyon days when Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody captured headlines in the United States and Europe. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, women's tennis languished as a second-tier event; only Maureen Connolly was close to being a star. Meanwhile, the postwar civil-rights movement had just begun to try to level sports' uneven playing field.

Schoenfeld's research reveals how complex a person Gibson was, and what a toll her pioneering took on her. Born in South Carolina in 1927, she grew up in Harlem and knocked around the African-American tournament circuit for years before getting a shot at major titles, which only whites had held previously. Like Babe Didrikson before her, she excelled in more than one sport, and, also like Didrikson, she had a champion's cockiness that grated on some opponents. Didrikson, however, was able to exploit her talent, first in the Olympics in track and field, and later on the pro golf circuit. As a black woman in a white country club world, Gibson had to battle both race and class obstacles. She integrated just about every club at which she played a tournament. Unlike baseball's Jackie Robinson, Gibson had no Branch Rickey to plot her entrance onto the white sports scene. And while Robinson's prickly personality was more or less accepted, Gibson's never was.

As Schoenfeld shows, the atmosphere of the pre-Open era was exclusive and prejudiced. Female players not favored by the snooty tennis establishment either had to work part-time or to rely on under-the-table payments in order to survive. He also details the pervasive anti-Semitism that kept Angela Buxton on the fringes of British tennis, although she was just as determined as Gibson, nine years her senior, to reach competitive heights.

Buxton, never a big winner at singles and only occasionally at doubles, obviously was generous with her reminiscences. Thus Schoenfeld paints a well-rounded portrait of a girl raised in a secular Jewish household, without great natural athletic ability, but who managed to ascend the tennis ranks largely thanks to her sheer determination. Yet even as Buxton kept winning matches and recognition -- right up to the year she made it to the Wimbledon final -- she still had to work as a retail store clerk. Buxton and Gibson were thrown together, the author suggests, because both were such outcasts that they desperately needed not just a practice partner, but someone to talk to.

By the time Gibson met Buxton in India in 1955 on a State Department-sponsored tour, Gibson had been toiling in tennis's obscure vineyards for almost a decade. An indifferent student, she had graduated from high school at the age of 22, her class ring paid for by the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, one of a handful of black supporters. Her few mentors included Dr. Walter Johnson, the man responsible for tutoring the young Arthur Ashe some years later.

Schoenfeld interviewed numerous contemporaries of both women -- champions such as Margaret Osborne du Pont, Doris Hart, Shirley Fry, Louise Brough and Angela Mortimer. Only Buxton, however, reached out to Gibson. Thus, when she came to Wimbledon in 1956, she stayed at Buxton's home. Buxton introduced Gibson to C.D. Jones, a savvy sportswriter who coached Buxton in a strategy of angles he called "pattern tennis." Schoenfeld draws an effective contrast between such friendly aid and the cold shoulder others gave Gibson in a story about how she, in 1955, asked Doris Hart, then at the end of her career, if Hart could tell her what she was doing wrong. "Althea, you've got to be kidding," Hart replied. "You don't think I'm going to help you, do you?" No wonder it took Gibson until she was nearly 30 years old to win both Wimbledon and Forest Hills.

No wonder she acted aloof and supremely self-confident. How else to battle the plantation mentality? Ashe, a generation younger, and a quiet activist with a more pleasant demeanor, won only five major titles, compared with Gibson's 11, yet the stadium at Flushing Meadows is named for him, not her. No wonder she grew bitter.

Schoenfeld reveals that in 1995 Gibson phoned Buxton, then living in Florida, to announce she was sick, poor and forgotten -- and planned to take her own life. Schoenfeld says Buxton was the one who immediately told tennis bigwigs about Gibson's plight and started funds flowing to her.

Gibson was not forgotten by everyone. Billie Jean King, among others, took pains to make sure that her sport's illustrious foremothers, especially those who broke barriers, were recognized. King and her then-husband, Larry, invited Gibson to play in a pro event they promoted when Gibson was almost 41 years old. As a Wimbledon singles champion, Gibson did appear at the All-England Club's 1984 centenary of women's play. In the early 1990s, fans caught frequent glimpses of her, alone, regal, sitting in the champion's box during the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows.

According to Schoenfeld, it was Angela Buxton who was responsible for putting Gibson in touch with the Williams sisters. In Florida when Venus was still a young phenom, Buxton put Gibson on the phone with her. And Gibson, who died last year, clearly wanted Venus and Serena to understand her legacy. The proud, lonely pioneer counseled Venus before her first U.S. Open final in 1997, "Be who you are and let your racket do the talking. The crowd will love you." *

Grace Lichtenstein wrote about the women's tour and the King/Riggs match in her 1974 book "A Long Way, Baby: Behind the Scenes in Women's Pro Tennis."