A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Sloane Stephens burst onto the tennis scene with her thrilling quarterfinals upset of her hero Serena Williams during the Australian Open. For many like Stephens, the Williams Sisters, Venus and Serena, were considered to be the first African American females to dominate the sport. But that is not the case. Althea Gibson holds that honor.
Considered by many of her contemporaries as the female Jackie Robinson, Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina in 1927. Her family moved to Harlem when she was in grade school.
She caught the attention of Dr. Water Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia. Johnson was also known for guiding and mentoring Arthur Ashe. Under the tutelage of Dr. Johnson, Gibson was afforded the use of better facilities and training, which launched her meteoric rise to the top of her field.
She was the first Black to win all of the major tournaments, The French, Australian (Doubles), Wimbledon and the United States Opens. She won 56 singles and doubles titles during her distinguish career and did it with the grace of a royal subject. She dominated the decade of the fifties. She won three-straight French Open Double titles from 1956-1958 and the singles title in 1956. She went on to capture the Wimbledon single titles in 1957 and 1958 and took home the US Open singles titles in 1957 and 1958. In 1957 she was named the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
Althea was one of the most beloved athletes of her era. After she retired, she toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing exhibition matches before the Clown Princes of Basketball took the court. She also toured as a golf professional after she put down the racket.
Upon her retirement, she served as both professional tennis and golf instructors. In 1975, Gibson was named the New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics, a position she held for 10 years. She also served on the State’s Athletic Control Board.
Althea Gibson passed away at the age of 75 on September 28, 2003. She left behind a legacy of triumph and dignity. She, along with Arthur Ashe, opened the door to the tennis world to African Americans. Her contributions should not be forgotten.