HOW FITTING THAT Google is celebrating tennis great Althea Gibson right as the U.S. Open kicks off today, for it was at this tournament that her example began to make all the difference.
Today would have been Gibson’s 87th birthday, and Google salutes her with an animated Doodle that deftly reflects her “tall and sinewy” reach and grace at the net.
The art’s timing reminds that it was Gibson who, in 1950, broke tennis’s “color line” — three years after the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson did the same for major league baseball — by becoming the first African American player to compete in America’s Grand Slam tournament, then called the U.S. National Championships.
There, she began to blaze a trail for such next-generation pioneers as Arthur Ashe, who in 1968 would become the first black man to win a U.S. Open title. Today, the tournament’s marquee matches are played in the stadium named in Ashe’s memory.
In this most American of events, her determination made all the difference.
The year after her U.S. Nationals debut, Gibson would become the first black player at Wimbledon, and six years later, she would win both the singles and doubles titles there at the All England Club — a Wimbledon feat she would repeat the next year.
When I was a junior-tennis player, Gibson — with her powerful focus and poise — was one of my heroes. By the time I was a junior sports reporter, she was one of my idols.
When I watched France’s Yannick Noah play a 1989 Davis Cup match in San Diego, I not only knew he was the first black man to win a French Open singles title; I also knew that Gibson won the French in 1956, becoming the first black player to win a Grand Slam (one of her five Slam singles titles).
Before Noah and his career of milestones, Gibson’s trailblazing had made all the difference.
When I watched Zina Garrison play a tough singles semifinal in Los Angeles in 1988, I saw a player with the talent and determination to make the Wimbledon singles final two years later — the first African American woman to make a Slam final since Gibson in 1958. The next decade, also in Southern California, I would watch a rising Venus Williams play as she followed in Garrison’s wake. Both women would cite the ways in which Gibson made a difference.
And as a cub reporter in the early ’90s, I covered a young Tiger Woods — and listened to his father say that Tiger would transform golf — and remembered that Gibson had broken another barrier, becoming the first black woman to compete on the pro golf tour.
Althea Neale Gibson was born Aug. 25, 1927, in Silver, S.C., and within a few years moved with her family to Harlem, where she became a talented table-tennis player before winning a local American Tennis Association tourney in the early ’40s, just a year after picking a racket.
Her breaking of the sport’s color line in 1950 has been voted the No. 1 moment in black tennis history. And in 1971, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Ms. Gibson died of respiratory failure on Sept. 28, 2003, in East Orange, N.J. She was 76.
She said she never wanted to be a crusader. She said she was a pioneer for herself. But to so many of us who appreciate the increasing diversity of the sport, her legacy has made all the difference.