Courting Change: The Life of Tennis Legend Althea Gibson

By Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo | The Crisis, November/December 2004 | Go to article overview

Courting Change: The Life of Tennis Legend Althea Gibson


Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo, The Crisis


BOOKS Courting Change: The Life of Tennis Legend Althea Gibson

Born to Win: The Aythorized Biography of Althea Gibson By Frances clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb (Wiley, $24.95)

The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton, How Two Outsiders - One Black, the Other Jewish - Forged a Friendship and Made Sports History By Bruce Schoenfeld (Amistad, $24.95)

Before Venus and Serena Williams, before Arthur Ashe and Zina Garrison, there was Althea Gibson.

Tennis fans who don't remember her heyday may be familiar with Gibson from veteran tennis announcer Bud Collins's "flashback moments" - five-second clips of Wimbledon championship matches. It's obvious from the grainy blackand-white images that her reign was long ago. The clips date from 1957 and 1958, the years Gibson made history, winning back-to-back Wimbledon singles titles. She wasn't simply the first Black woman to win Wimbledon, she was the first Black person male or female to play Wimbledon. In '57 and '58, she also won the singles competition at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills - the precursor to the tournament now known as the U.S. Open. And from 1956 through 1958 she captured three Wimbledon doubles titles.

Along the way, Gibson fought a twotier battle - one athletic, the other against prejudice. Off the court, her victories were hard-won. Traveling the world, she broke the color barrier at tennis tournaments here and abroad. Meanwhile, she often had to find her own lodging, because hotels willing to host White players refused to accommodate Negroes. She also played countless matches at tennis clubs that had no intention at the time of accepting Blacks as members.

Gibson, who died last year at age 76, was little remarked upon after the 1970s, partially because she was little seen, leaving many to assume she was dead. Or maybe she had retired in the luxurious style befitting the Venus Williams of her day? In fact, despite parallels between their playing styles, Gibson wasn't a superstar like Williams. She couldn't be. In Gibson's day, Wimbledon offered no cash prize. Woman's tennis, in particular, was elitist and largely under the providence of the already well-to-do. Journalist Bruce Schoenfeld describes the women's tennis circuit prior to the late 1960s as a kind of social club, filled with talented girls who also fit "the contemporary stereotype of a female tennis player: a nice girl who used the game like she used the foxtrot - as a social skill."

Two new biographies, Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson by Frances clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb and Schoenfeld's The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton, How Two Outsiders - One Black, the Other Jewish - Forged a Friendship and Made Sports History, help explain the Gibson phenomenon. Certainly Gibson hardly fit the description above. She was an aggressive woman, a street kid, an all-around athlete.

Born in 1927, in Silver, S.C., and raised in Harlem, Gibson was a borderline juvenile delinquent. In 1957, she reminisced in Time magazine, "My friends and I used to regard school as just a good place to meet and make our plans for what we would do all day." Compulsively absent, Gibson dropped out of school, roamed the streets, stole knickknacks and played sports such as basketball and football. At most competitions, the lanky Gibson, who grew to be 5-11, was good enough to beat the guys.

Born to Win gives the bare bones story of the hard-earned ascension of this unlikeliest of tennis stars.

Fortuitously spotted while playing a mean game of paddle ball, Gibson was encouraged by Harlem's elite Black community, the "talented tenth," to put her skills to use in an urbane sport. Maybe she became a tennis player by accident, but she excelled. Soon she was living at the homes of her coaches, playing regularly and consistently winning segregated tournaments. By 26, she had remade herself from a high school dropout to a Florida A&M graduate who was respected as tennis' own Jackie Robinson.

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