Tennis Pioneer Gibson Is Ailing and Reclusive

By Gwen Knapp San Francisco Examiner | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Tennis Pioneer Gibson Is Ailing and Reclusive


Gwen Knapp San Francisco Examiner, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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 grainy celluloid. 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 her side. 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 years. …

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