The envelopes started coming a few months ago, some with
checks, some with cash, all with fondness and respect. They were
addressed to Althea Gibson, one of the great athletes of the 20th
century, a woman who crashed racial barriers, rode in a ticker-tape
parade down Broadway and accepted trophies from the Queen of
England and Vice President Richard Nixon.
Gibson is 69 today, ailing and reclusive. According to friends,
she has survived two strokes in recent years, and her once-powerful
5-11 body now c arries barely 115 pounds. She lives in a small
house in East Orange, N.J., where two neighbors tend to her needs.
Gibson's friends say she has only Medicare and Social Security
to support herself, and they say it with trepidation. They know the
former t ennis champion would not trade dignity for comfort. They
hold their breath every time they try to raise funds for her.
"I might lose our friendship over this," Angela Buxton, her
former doubles partner, said in a September interview with Inside
Tennis. Buxton has publicized Gibson's troubles, reminding the
tennis world that she ruled the sport in an era of amateurism.
In Marin County, Calif., the Mt. Tamalpais Racquet Club will
host a benefit Saturday, featuring tennis matches and memorabilia
signed by past and present stars. The organizers have carefully
titled the event "Thanks, Althea." They are not friends of
Gibson's; they simply admire her.
"This is a tribute to Althea, for her contributions to tennis,"
said Pat Blaskower, the Mill Valley Tennis Club pro.
The sport's largest debts accumulated in the late 1950s, when
Gibson won two Wimbledon singles titles, two U.S. Opens and a
French Open. Film clips from the era show a daring, aggressive
player, charging the net, reaching out for an almost impossible
backhand and then neatly spinning back into place, cultivating a
serve-and-volley style that has been largely ignored in recent
years. Such clips usually summon only nostalgia for the viewer. But
Gibson's performances remain stirring 40 years later, even in
Her career was full of remarkable images. She carried tennis
out of segregation, a journey that no institution made easily. A
headline from the period said: "Negress Stars in Eastern."
A picture from 1950 shows Gibson walking onto the grounds of
the U.S. Open (then known as the U.S. Championships) with Alice
Marble as her escort. Gibson was about to become the first black
American to play at Forest Hills. Marble, a former champion, had
written a guest editorial in a tennis magazine excoriating the
game's establishment for excluding players based on race.
Their walk into the club represented both progress and
inequity. Gibson belonged at Forest Hills, but for all her talent
and strength, she couldn't enter alone. She needed a white woman by
But it was the African-American community that had truly
fostered her career, first in New York, then around the country.
Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson helped pay for her travels. Buddy Walker,
a band leader and playground supervisor in Harlem, introduced her
to Fred Johnson, the one-armed coach who taught her in the early