When Venus Williams steps onto Centre Court at Wimbledon on Saturday to vie for her sixth title, she will be following in the footsteps of a black tennis pioneer.
Sixty years ago this month, Althea Gibson became the first African American to win a championship at Wimbledon. With a powerful serve and an astonishing reach, Gibson dominated the court at the All-England club, defeating Darlene Hard in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, despite 96-degree heat.
Gibson, who began playing tennis in Harlem as a child, had broken tennis’s color barrier.
“At last! At last!” she shouted, before accepting the coveted trophy from Queen Elizabeth II.
In her 1958 autobigraphy, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody,” Gibson recounted what that moment meant to her: “While I stood there, posing this way and that to accommodate the photographers, I thought about something I had read in a book Helen Wills wrote about her career in tennis, ‘My feelings,’ she said, ‘when that final Wimbledon match was mine, I cannot describe. This was the prize for all the games I ever played since I was a little girl.’ I knew exactly what she meant.”
Gibson’s feat was especially amazing in the all-white world of Wimbledon.
“Everything was white — the balls, the clothes, the people, the socks the shoes. Everything,” Billie Jean King remembered in an American Masters documentary presented by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
King called Gibson “the Jackie Robinson of tennis.” She became a source of inspiration to the players of color who followed her onto the court: Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison and, of course, Venus and Serena Williams.
“She considered us ‘two of the greatest tennis athletes in the world,’ ” Venus wrote in the afterword of the book “Born to Win; The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson,” by Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb.
Although Venus never got the chance to meet Gibson, who died in 2003, they talked on the phone.
“I was so star-struck that I was almost unable to say anything. It was like talking with history,” she wrote.
Many have compared Venus to Gibson because of their height — Venus is 6 feet 1, Gibson was 5 feet 11 — their strength, their power, and the ease with which they could cover the court.
“The more I learn about her, the more I see similarities in our backgrounds, competitiveness, growth, and resilience — especially when the odds have been against us,” Venus wrote. “No matter what was going on around us, we tried to maintain our focus and grace under pressure.”
Like the Williams sisters, Gibson did not come from the privileged world of country club tennis.
She was the oldest of five children, born in Silver, S.C., on Aug. 25, 1927, to parents who were sharecroppers. The family moved to New York, where her father worked in a garage, and Gibson got a start playing paddle tennis on Harlem’s sidewalks.
She often skipped school and avoided going home to escape her father’s discipline. At one point, she became a ward of the city. Through the Police Athletic League, Gibson began playing tennis and winning tournaments.
Gibson competed in the American Tennis Association (ATA), the oldest African American sports organization in the United States, which was founded in 1916 “as the black equivalent to the United States Lawn Tennis Association.”
Gibson won the junior national championship when she was 17 and again at 18. Robert Walter Johnson, a physician who founded the ATA’s Junior Development Program for African American youths, took notice and became her sponsor, helping her receive advanced training.
Gibson became friends with ATA men’s champion Billy Davis, who urged her to work with renowned tennis coach Sidney Llewellyn.
“Eventually I did get to meet with Sidney, and we started working out and believe you me, he worked my butt off,” Gibson remembered in a television interview. “We would have practice sessions, every day — five days a week, eight hours a day, practicing serves and volleys. In between practice, Billy Davis, the same one who introduced me to Syd, would come out and play a match, and we played a match as we were playing for our lives. ”
Llewellyn would have a box of hundreds of balls. “I would serve 200 of those balls in one spot until I was so accurate I could close my eyes and put the ball where I wanted to,” Gibson recalled.
She also developed a devastating forehand, which made her a formidable player in a sport still segregated.
A white player, four-time U.S. National singles champion Alice Marble, lobbied for Gibson to be invited to major tournaments in the United States.
“If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts,” Marble wrote in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine.
Sarah Hammond Palfrey Danzig, who had won the singles title at the U.S. Championships in 1941 and 1945, asked Gibson how she felt about the competition.
“I am not afraid of any of these players,” Gibson told her, according to a history of her career on the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s website.
In 1950, Gibson played at what would later become the U.S. Open — the U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills, N.Y. She made history on Court 14, defeating Barbara Knapp, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round. In the second round, Gibson faced No. 3 seed and defending Wimbledon champion Louise Brough.
“I have sat in on many dramatic moments in sports, but few were more thrilling than Miss Gibson’s performance against Miss Brough,” New York Journal-American sportswriter David Eisenberg told Sports Illustrated. “Not because great tennis was played, because it wasn’t. But because of the great try by this lonely, and nervous, colored girl, and because of the manner in which the elements robbed her of her great triumph.”
After dropping the first set 6-1, Gibson “found her stroke and her power in the second set and tied the match with a 6-3 win,” according to the Hall of Fame. “In the third set, Gibson broke Brough three times to take a 7-6 lead when torrential rain and a massive thunderstorm rolled in, postponing the match until the following day. When it resumed, Brough won the next three games for a 9-7, third-set victory.”
Six years later, Gibson became the first black player to win singles title at the French Open. She also won the doubles title that year.
Then in 1957, at age 30, she won Wimbledon.
Upon, her return to New York, Gibson was feted in a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York.
Three months later, she won the U.S. Open in straight sets. She defended both titles in 1958.
She was named Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 — the first black woman to receive the award. She appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated. She was on the Wheaties box.
But she was struggling financially, and, in 1958, she announced she would retire. The greatest tennis player in the world was quitting at the top of her game.
The next year, she released an album “Althea Gibson Sings.” Her voice is deep and rich. The song “So Much to Live For” was written for her.
“We have so much to live for, to work and to play,” she sings in a smooth, jazz voice.
In 1959, Gibson landed a role in the Western film, “The Horse Soldiers,” starring John Wayne and William Holden. She played a maid.
She joined the Harlem Globetrotters, then began playing golf, becoming the first black female player on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour at age 33.
In 1988, Gibson donated five Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“Who could have imagined? Who could have thought?” said Gibson. “Here stands before you a Negro woman, raised in Harlem, who went on to become a tennis player . . . and finally wind up being a world champion, in fact, the first black woman champion of this world.
“And believe it or not,” she said, “I still am.”
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