“Martina couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.” These words, from legendary US tennis coach Bob Ryland, referred to the woman who shattered the race barrier in tennis and became the first black person to win Wimbledon. She was described by Billie Jean King as “one of my she-roes”, and was a direct inspiration for Venus and Serena. Her name was Althea Gibson, and she changed everything.
Born in 1927, she hailed originally from South Carolina was raised in New York’s Harlem, an epicentre of African American life and culture. Her childhood was a tough time for the nation, as the Great Depression crushed lives from coast to coast. Her father was also a harsh disciplinarian. “Daddy would whip me,” she later recalled, “and I’m not talking about spankings.”
She found solace by riding the New York subway late into the night. And also by getting stuck into sports – particularly a New York variation of tennis called paddle tennis, which local kids played in a playground created by the police using traffic barricades on an ordinary Harlem street. Her talent caught the eye of friends and neighbours, who banded together to buy her rackets and membership of a tennis club. As she herself put it, she was “aggressive, dynamic and mean” – a tall, terrifying powerhouse on the courts. And when she won her first victory in a New York State championship, it was a breakthrough moment. “The girl I beat in the finals was a white girl,” Gibson said. “I can’t deny that made the victory all the sweeter to me.”
The issue of race was the major obstacle in her path. Despite earning the support of top tennis patrons, and an athletic scholarship to a university, she wasn’t able to compete in the US National Championships, the forerunner of today’s US Open. While black players weren’t technically barred from the tournament, they could only qualify by playing in various tennis clubs, which were largely whites-only. Things only changed after top (white) tennis player Alice Marble penned an acerbic open letter saying “It so happens that I tan very easily in the summer, but I doubt that anyone ever questioned my right to play in the Nationals because of it.”
She also wrote, damningly, “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen... it's time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites”.
The intervention made an impact, and Gibson was soon on her way to the Nationals. She didn’t win, but big things were about to happen. In 1956, she became the first ever African American to win a Grand Slam tournament – the French Championships. The year after that, Althea Gibson won the US Nationals, as well as the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the coloured section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, NC,” she later said.
After the historic Wimbledon victory, she was honoured with a ticker tape parade in New York City, like Jesse Owens had been before her. She would go onto win Wimbledon again the very next year, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and being feted as one of the biggest names in the game. And yet, Althea Gibson was struggling to survive. In those days, there simply wasn’t the kind of prize money in tennis as there is today.
“My finances were in heartbreaking shape,” she later wrote. “Being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good, but you can't eat a crown. Nor can you send the Internal Revenue Service a throne clipped to their tax forms.”
She branched out into other fields, including music and acting. A talented singer, she released an album of jazz standards, and even performed on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show. She also appeared on game shows, and in a Western by iconic director John Ford – though she bravely refused to play her role with the cartoonish “Negro” accent the script originally demanded.
The fact was, despite smashing through the two separate glass ceilings of gender and race, her identity still counted against her. She said: “When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations. Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barriers once and for all, as I had – perhaps naively – hoped.”
In her final years, she was so broke that her close friend Angela Buxton, with whom she’d won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1956, had to secretly raise donations to pay her medical and living expenses. But when she died in 2003, the world hailed the woman who single-handedly opened the game of tennis up to everybody – not just the privileged few. In the words of US tennis official Alan Schwartz, “Every time a black child or a Hispanic child or an Islamic child picks up a tennis racket for the first time, Althea touhes another life… this is her legacy.”