Althea Gibson 1927-2003 brought grace, dignity and power to the world of tennis in the 1950's. She intimidated opponents with her powerful serve, pinpoint volleys and thundering overhead. But she is best remembered for having the courage to take on major tennis' all-white establishment. Gibson was a pioneer who broke several racial barriers in the sport and paved the way for future stars such as Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, and Venus and Serena Williams. The first African-American to win the Wimbledon singles title (she did it twice, in 1957 and 1958), she also won the French Open and U.S. Open singles titles.
Born to a South Carolina sharecropper who moved his family to New York City in 1930, Gibson grew up in Harlem during the great Depression. She shot pool with the local sharks and played basketball with the boys in her neighborhood -- but she was especially adept at paddle ball. During the summer of 1941, a Police Athletic League supervisor watched Gibson win a local tournament and suggested she take up tennis. Gibson began taking lessons, beating all comers and rapidly rising through the ranks of New York's all-Black American Tennis Association (ATA). In 1947, Gibson won the first of her 10 consecutive ATA national championships. She continued to dominate the ATA circuit while remaining shut out of all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) events.
After years of lobbying on the part of ATA officials and contemporaries such as former Wimbledon champion Alice Marble, Gibson made tennis history when she stepped onto Court 14 at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York on August 28, 1950 to compete in women's singles at the U.S. Championship. Gibson became the first African-American -- male or female -- to play in a major USLTA event. She defeated England's Barbara Knapp in straight sets, but lost to former Wimbledon champion Louise Brough in the second round. She made history again at Wimbledon that year, advancing to the quarterfinals.
Over the next five years, Gibson continued to win ATA titles, but her success in USLTA events was somewhat uneven until she returned from an exhibition tour of Asia for the U.S. State Department in 1955. She won 16 of 18 USLTA matches during the 1956 season, including the French Championships on May 20, becoming the first African-American to win a major tennis singles title.
Gibson was nearly 30 when she won her first Wimbledon title in 1957. She returned to a hero's welcome and ticker-tape parade in New York. She won her first U.S. Championship later that year and became the top-ranked female tennis player in the world. After winning her second U.S. title in 1958, Gibson retired from amateur competition. She took up golf and broke another color barrier by becoming the first African-American woman to compete on the LPGA circuit. She won one tournament during a seven-year career.
After retiring from professional competition in 1971, Gibson taught tennis and also served as athletic commissioner for the State of New Jersey from 1975 to '77. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
They said it: "Ain't that a blip, that a Harlem street rebel would go on to become a world tennis champion?" -- Gibson