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Gibson breaks racial barriers with tennis wins

Althea Gibson becomes first black to take Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 1999


As a 15-year-old, Althea Gibson played paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem. Fifteen years later, she defeated all challengers at the All England Lawn Tennis Club and the West Side Tennis Club, becoming the first black to conquer Wimbledon and the U.S. national championship.

In 1958, she won both championships again. The 5-foot-11 right-hander had 11 career Grand Slam victories and earned entry into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She was born on a cotton farm in South Carolina, grew up in Harlem and picked up tennis after a New York Police Athletic League coach saw her play paddleball. She was coaxed into joining PAL coach Buddy Walker at a nearby public tennis facility and immediately began to dominate her peers.

"I just found that I had a skill at hitting that ball," she told a biographer in 1965. "And I enjoyed the competition."

The Florida A&M graduate and former schoolteacher began her 1957 odyssey of Grand Slam events in July in London and ended it two months later in New York.

She beat Darlene Hard 6-3, 6-2 to win at Wimbledon. Between the two, Gibson also became the first African-American to represent the United States in the Wightman Cup matches, annual competitions between the United States and Great Britain.

On Sept. 8, 1957, she defeated Louise Brough 6-3, 6-2 at Forest Hills to culminate a U.S. national championship tournament in which she didn't lose a set. Seven years earlier, Gibson had nearly beaten Brough when she became the first black to compete for the U.S. championship.

Gibson also teamed with Denmark's Kurt Neilsen to win the 1957 mixed doubles championship.

In the women's singles final, Gibson was tentative at first. She double-faulted twice in the second game to let a 30-0 lead evaporate and lost the third after leading 40-15. She and Brough committed numerous foot faults. But trailing 2-3 in the first set, Gibson found her groove when she realized her hard serves were working and that her volleys, which she considered her most effective shots, were taking their toll as well.

Showing little emotion, she won the next four games, then picked up steam as Brough's confidence continued to unravel. The end came after Brough saved two match points in the final game.

When Gibson received the championship trophy, filled with red roses and white gladioli, from Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Gibson thanked everyone in the stands and in tennis who had given her the opportunity to play at Forest Hills; thanked God for her ability, and said she hoped she might wear her crown with dignity and humility. Her remarks were followed, the New York Times reported, "by the longest demonstration of hand-clapping heard in the stadium in years."

She admitted afterward to being nervous before taking the court. But it was a nervousness tempered with confidence, she said: "Wimbledon would give anybody confidence."

Gibson's victory at the U.S. National was similar to Tiger Woods' triumph 40 years later at the Masters golf championship: Woods' win did not fling open the doors of America's country clubs to African-Americans, but it surely gave some of them an awareness of what they might accomplish.

When asked what the future held for her, Gibson said she enjoyed singing and might take voice lessons. "After all," she said, "I've got to make a living."

She said she had no thoughts of becoming a professional tennis player. "You have to have an offer before you consider it," she said.

-- Information from the United States Tennis Association and ESPN.com was used in this report.

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