Grand Slam tennis champ Althea Gibson changed how the world viewed Black players in the predominately white sport. Gibson was born in South Carolina to sharecroppers before the family moved to Harlem, New York. At an early age, she demonstrated athletic prowess, playing basketball and paddle tennis. Her talent in paddle tennis led her to win her first title at age 12. Her junior career led to her winning multiple titles, including the American Tennis Association New York State Championship. She won ATA national girls’ division championship in 1944 and 1945.
Gibson’s success in the division caught the eye of Dr. Walter Johnson, a tennis enthusiast who mentored her as a young adult. His guidance helped her become part of the United States Tennis Association (USTA). After joining the organization, she became the first Black woman to play in the Nationa Indoor Championships. After attending high school in North Carolina, she enrolled at Florida A&M University. In 1950, she became the first black player to compete in the U.S. Open. However, the tennis prodigy scored her first international title, the Caribbean Championship in Jamaica. She went on to win 16 international tournaments in Europe and Asia.
As her amateur career continued, Gibson became the first Black person to win the French Open. She won numerous singles and doubles tournaments before becoming the first Black person to win Wimbledon in 1957. After receiving the renowned championship, the tennis ace became only the second athlete (after Jesse Owens) to a ticker tape parade. In the same year, she won several singles and doubles championships before becoming the first Black player to compete in and win the Wightman Cup. Her success led to her being crowned Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 (the first Black woman to do so) and becoming the first Black woman to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. Despite being the top-ranked tennis player, the tennis star retired at age 31 from her amateur career.
Gibson turned professional but found the professional touring circuit quite limiting with little reward. At the height of her tennis career, the tennis icon worked as a physical education teacher at Lincoln University in Missouri. Her post-retirement career featured a brief stint in the entertainment industry as a singer and musician. Eventually, she pursued a professional golf career, becoming the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. Just like her tennis heyday, she broke course records during her golf career. She continued playing until 1978 when she retired with little financial gain.
In her later years, Gibson participated in several media appearances. She penned two memoirs while teaching and mentoring young tennis players through multiple clinics and youth tennis programs. The retired player continued blazing trails as she became the first female athletic commissioner in the U.S. She tried returning to tennis and golf in the 1980s but faced hurdles with both attempts. Gibson dabbled in politics by joining the New Jersey Department of Recreation and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. After facing health battles in the 1980s and 1990s, the tennis icon passed away on September 28, 2003, following complications from a heart attack.
During and after her lifetime, Althea Gibson left an impact on sports. She used her careers in tennis and golf as a form of activism as she sought to break color barriers. She paved the way for many Black tennis players to receive the recognition and financial gains they deserve. Her contributions as an elite athlete may not have not the appreciation they deserve in her lifetime. So, I say, “Ms. Gibson, we appreciate all you had to go through to make Black and brown folks the face of tennis.”
In the field of sports you are more or less accepted for what you do rather than what you are.Althea Gibson