Althea Gibson




Althea Gibson is an enduring symbol of the changes that began to be rendered in American sporting culture in the 1950s. Gibson became a focal point in the gradual recognition by mainstream American society that sports was an activity where success was ultimately achieved through talent and not skin color. Gibson's perhaps unintended role as a trailblazer was all the more remarkable due to her rise to prominence in the then most racially segregated of sports, tennis.

Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina; her family moved to New York City in 1930 and it was in New York that Gibson was introduced to tennis. Gibson first played the game at the all black Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, winning her first tournament at age 15. It was evident from her very first tournament success that the tall and athletic Gibson possessed a remarkable if unrefined game, and she quickly earned a reputation as a tough and sometimes combative player. She moved to North Carolina at age 15 to take advantage of better year round weather for tennis training. Upon her completion of high school, Gibson accepted an athletic scholarship to Florida Agricultural & Mechanical College (now Florida A & M University), at Tallahassee, a historically black educational institution.

An early springboard for Gibson's later professional success was the American Tennis Association, ATA, the oldest all black sports organization in the United States. The ATA was created in 1916 to both provide African American players with access to competitive tournaments, and to act as a counter-weight to the racially exclusionary influences of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), the sport's governing body. The USLTA was legally permitted to enforce racial segregation in the structure of its tennis championships, consistent with American law until 1954. Gibson won 10 consecutive ATA national championships beginning in 1947.

Gibson was also influenced in her drive to tennis excellence by "Sugar" Ray Robinson (1921–1989), the prominent world champion boxer who was influential in his own right in the elimination of competitive barriers then in place for many black boxers. Robinson and his wife Edna had spoken to Gibson on a number of occasions prior to her departure to North Carolina, to encourage her in her tennis ambitions.

Gibson attempted to enter the USLTA national championships in 1950. Her application was initially rejected by the USLTA national executive, notwithstanding Gibson's success at a number of high level USLTA regional events. Gibson ultimately played in the United States Open in August 1950, becoming the first African American woman to do so.

When contrasted with meteoric rise to professional stardom and wealth often enjoyed by modern teen age professional tennis players, Althea Gibson's success in the years after 1955 is all the more remarkable as she played no competitive tennis between 1952 and 1955, due to the combined effects of her pursuit of a career in physical education upon her graduation from Florida A & M, coupled with a measure of disillusionment with her tennis game. In most athletes at any elite level of competition, the period between ages 25 and 28 often represents the player's athletic prime. Gibson worked as a university athletic department administrator during these three years.

Under the tutelage of tennis coach Sidney Llewellyn, Gibson rebuilt her game and her confidence in 1955. Gibson developed a formidable serve and volley game, the tennis strategy where the serving player comes immediately to the net to attempt to put pressure on the opponent. Serve and volley tennis has fallen out of favor on a number of modern tennis surfaces, but it remains an effective strategy on grass courts such as England's Wimbledon. Llewellyn and Gibson believed that a serve and volley game was one that allowed Gibson to use her lateral quickness, agility, and her aggressive nature to the fullest advantage. Gibson also added an overpowering second serve to her shot-making arsenal. After participating in a good will tour in Southeast Asia organized by the United States government, Gibson was invited to make her first appearance at Wimbledon in 1956. Although she did not advance at the English championships that year, Gibson won her first ever major tennis title, the French Open, that year.

Gibson became the most dominant player in women's tennis in 1957, when she was the finalist at the Australian Open, followed by the women's singles championship at Wimbledon. Her triumph at the 1957 U.S Open, a feat repeated in 1958, brought Gibson national recognition as the dominant female athlete in America, as she was named Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 by a number of news media organizations in both years. Gibson also became the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

For all of her undoubted athletic talent, women's tennis in the late 1950s provided virtually no opportunities for a player of Gibson's skill an opportunity to earn a living, as the national championships such as the United States Open and Wimbledon were strictly amateur competitions. Gibson was not able make enough money to support herself through tennis, and she shocked the world tennis community with her retirement from competitive tennis at age 30, in 1958.

It is a further testament to the remarkable athletic talents of Althea Gibson that she then became a professional golfer with comparatively little formal instruction. Although never a dominant player on the women's tour, Gibson played professional golf until 1967. She was the first African American woman to hold a membership in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).

With the rise of a bona fide professional tennis circuit in the early 1970s, Gibson attempted a comeback as a professional player in 1971. Gibson's athleticism and tennis skill were not sufficient to overcome the inevitable toll that time had taken on her game, and Gibson found that she could not effectively compete with the younger players at her age of 44.

It is an enduring irony of tennis that Gibson, in many respects was a trailblazer for black tennis stars such as Arthur Ashe, Serena and Venus Williams, all of whom achieved both world wide fame and considerable wealth from a sport in which the sublimely talented Gibson could not earn a living in the late 1950s.

After her retirement from competitive sports, Gibson worked as an athletic commissioner in New Jersey. She was also active in the promotion of physical fitness among young people in that state. A series of strokes debilitated Gibson to the point where she retired from her employment in 1992. Gibson died in 2003 after spending a number of years in poor health.

SEE ALSO Gender in sports: Female athletes; Golf; Tennis.