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Gibson's impact measured by those she inspired

August 26, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Sheila Johnson grew up dreaming of playing the violin, not tennis.

Even so, Althea Gibson inspired her.

Her school's orchestra director would take the violinists to the courts in the belief swinging a racket would help them in drawing their bows. During those outings, Johnson learned about Gibson, who broke tennis' color barrier in 1950.

Johnson, now 58, went on to establish several firsts of her own as the first black woman to become a billionaire and to hold a controlling interest in a professional sports team.

The broad impact of Gibson's achievements will be saluted Monday during opening night of the U.S. Open. Johnson is one of the pioneering black women from a wide range of fields who will gather to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gibson's historic title at the U.S. National Championships.

In 1957, she became the first black player, male or female, to win the tournament, which became the Open.

"Althea Gibson probably is one of the most under-celebrated individuals in this country," Johnson said. "It's a shame more people don't know about her."

She hopes Monday's ceremony will help change that. Aretha Franklin, the first black woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will perform at the tribute, titled "Breaking Barriers."

Along with Johnson, the BET co-founder and WNBA owner, other scheduled participants include former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun; ex-WNBA star Cynthia Cooper; Winter Olympians Vonetta Flowers and Debi Thomas; tennis player Zina Garrison; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison; Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee; and "The Cosby Show" actress Phylicia Rashad.

Friends and admirers wish such a tribute had come sooner, that Gibson could have been alive to see it. They lament that she faced the added barrier of the lack of attention paid to women's sports when she competed.

Gibson, who won 11 Grand Slam titles, died in 2003 at the age of 76.

"I have never felt that as a sport and as a society that we have done justice to Althea," USTA president Jane Brown Grimes said. "I feel finally with this opening night celebration we are."

As a child, Grimes spent summers on Long Island and attended the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, where she watched Gibson play.

"I was absolutely awe-struck by her," Grimes said.

Gibson's height -- she was 5-foot-11 -- and powerful serve would fit right into today's game, but they were a revelation back then.

"Her serve was poetry," Grimes said.

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