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The Nation | ALTHEA GIBSON | 1927 -- 2003

Tennis Champion Was a Pioneer

September 29, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Althea Gibson, the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper who became the first African American player, man or woman, to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wimbledon and the French Open, died Sunday. She was 76.

Gibson died of respiratory failure at a hospital in East Orange, N.J., according to Fran Gray, her friend and co-founder of the Althea Gibson Foundation. Gibson had been in poor health for several years, Gray said, suffering from arthritis, high blood pressure and strokes.

A pioneer in sports as the first black player to compete at the U.S. nationals in 1950 -- only three years after Jackie Robinson had integrated major league baseball -- the 5-foot-11 Gibson was an athlete of uncommon strength and elegance.

She integrated Wimbledon in 1951 and won the French Open title in 1956, but it was in 1957 -- when she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, N.Y. -- that Gibson's history-making reputation was made. She received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, then came back a year later and successfully defended both titles.

Her triumphs occurred a full decade before the better-known Arthur Ashe brought down more racial barriers in men's tennis.

"We all know people who influence us, and, if we are lucky, we meet a few in our lives who improve us," said former tennis great Billie Jean King, who is now the captain of the U.S. Federation Cup. "Althea Gibson improved my life and the lives of countless others. She was the first to break so many barriers and from the first time I saw her play -- when I was 13 years old -- she became, and remained, one of my true heroines."

Born in Silver, S.C., Gibson was the oldest of five children of Daniel and Annie B. Gibson. Before she was a year old, the family moved to a crowded Harlem tenement and it was on a neighborhood street, when she was 12 years old, that Althea's tennis talent was discovered.

"Althea was playing paddle tennis," Gray said, "and a young man, a bandleader named Buddy Walker, took note of her strength and style and was impressed."

Walker, Gray said, contacted coaches at the American Tennis Assn., the organization that took the place of the United States Tennis Assn. for black players who were forbidden membership in the USTA. Gibson grew up poor and went through a series of menial jobs but continued with her tennis lessons.

From the outset, Gray said, "Her talent was very visible."

"Althea's serve, even with a wooden racket, was absolutely spectacular," said Gussie Moran, the tennis player from the 1940s who had become famous for her game and creative tennis clothing. "Her serve in the 1950s was as strong as the serves we see today."

Zina Garrison, who became the second black woman to reach a Wimbledon final in 1990, said Gibson was always after Garrison to improve Garrison's serve. "She was always trying to get me to serve harder and learn to volley better," said Garrison, who visited Gibson this month on the day after the U.S. Open. "She still loved the game very much."

But Garrison said that although Gibson didn't talk often about her experiences with racism and sexism, "those experiences were very bitter" for her. "She usually tried to stay positive," Garrison said, "but sometimes she did bring up the bitterness to me."

In 1942, the 15-year-old Gibson won the New York State Open girls' singles title. Her evident talent caused the members of a local club to pool their money and send Gibson to the ATA's national championship in Pennsylvania. It even attracted the attention of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, who added his financial support. By the time she was 18, two prominent black physicians, Dr. H.E. Eaton and Dr. Walter Johnson -- who would also be instrumental in the career of Ashe -- told Gibson they would bankroll her tennis career if she would continue her education.

Gibson even lived with the Eaton family in Wilmington, N.C., where she played tennis on his grass court and finished high school and received a college scholarship to Florida A&M. Eaton helped Gibson, while she was in Wilmington, to cultivate the grace and dignity she would need in breaking barriers on and off the tennis court. After improving her game in college, Gibson hoped to be invited to play the prestigious summer grass-court circuit sponsored by the United States Lawn Tennis Assn. No invitation came, but Gibson received backing from an unexpected corner -- other players. In an article in the American Lawn Tennis magazine, Alice Marble, a U.S. National Champion, wrote:

"I think it's time we faced a few factors. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites....

"If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts, where tennis is played."

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