New York-raised and Florida-schooled Althea Gibson was lifted-up by her community to achieve tennis greatness, but her strong character drove her to break racial barriers and allow champions of all colors to compete on tennis grandest stages in the 1950s.
On Monday the USTA unveiled a statue of the deceased groundbreaker at the US Open, attended by Gibson’s 85-year-old former doubles partner, Angela Buxton of Britain.
“It’s about bloody time,” Buxton, who won the 1956 French and Wimbledon titles with her friend, told the Associated Press.
In 1940 Gibson’s neighbors took up a collection to finance a junior membership and lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, New York, for the pre-teen.
“I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” she wrote for Time magazine in 1957. “I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.”
In 1949 she entered Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee on a full athletic scholarship. She was a dominant athletic performer at FAMU as both a tennis and basketball player. In 1976 she was honored by FAMU with induction into its sports hall of fame as the only female in that inaugural class.
Gibson was featured on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines and was voted the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957-58.
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One day after what would have been her 92nd birthday, and on Women’s Equality Day, a statue of Althea Gibson was unveiled at the @usopen. Getting to know her was a privilege. I am grateful to her always for showing me what No. 1 looked like. #USOpen #altheagibson #rememberhername #trailblazer #shero #womensequalityday
Gibson became the first African American to compete in the 1950 U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, now known as the US Open, on her 23rd birthday. Post-college she was teaching physical education and considered quitting tennis due to the low pay. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that the Open Era of tennis brought increased opportunities for professional players.
Years later she partnered with Buxton, who herself was denied membership at her club in London where she practiced due to listing her religion as Jewish.
“No one spoke to [Gibson], let alone played with her,” Buxton told the AP. “[Her playing style] was like a young man. She wore little shorts, a vest and hit the ball hard, even her second serve. She came charging up to the net. She bamboozled people with her attitude.”
The pair went on to win the French Open and Wimbledon titles but received little fanfare due to their minority status. Buxton, according to the AP, is still waiting on membership to the All England Club despite being a former champion.
In 1957 Gibson won both the Wimbledon and US Open titles, receiving a ticker-tape parade in New York City. She repeated the feat the following year and went out on top, retiring from tennis in 1958 at No. 1.
She followed her tennis career by signing a $100,000 contract to play exhibition tennis before Harlem Globetrotters basketball games, and played on the LPGA professional golf tour.
After her health failed in the late 1960s she struggled with her finances until her friend Buxton stepped in to literally save her life during her final years, writing a letter to Tennis Week magazine to raise funds. It spurred the WTA tour to eventually create a hardship fund for former players struggling to make ends meet.
The legacy of Gibson includes 11 Slam titles in three years from 1956-58, including the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open singles, and integrating tennis and golf during an era of racial segregation in the U.S.
“She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis,” said Billie Jean King, who at 13 watched Gibson play. “I saw what it meant to be the best.”