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ALTHEA GIBSON

TENNIS PLAYER (1927-)

No player overcame more obstacles to become a champion than Althea Gibson, the first Black person to win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills.  Her entry in the U.S. Championships of 1950 at Forest Hills was historic, it was the first appearance of an American Black in that event. 

It took seven years for Gibson to work her way to the championship there, in 1957.  Tennis was pretty much a segregated sport in the U.S. until the American Tennis Association, the governing body for Black tournaments, prevailed in the U.S. Tennis Association to permit the ATA female champion, Gibson, to enter Forest Hills. 

Two years earlier in 1948, Dr. Reginald Weir, a New York physician, was the first Black male permitted in the USTA championship, playing in the U.S. Indoor event.  Athea's first appearance at Forest Hills was not only a notable occasion it was nearly a moment of staggering triumph. 

Making her historic debut in a 6-2, 6-2 win over Barbara Knapp, she encountered in the second round third-seeded Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and came within one game of winning.  Recovering from nerves, Althea led, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6, when providence intervened; a thunderstorm struck Forest Hills, curtailing the match until the following day, Brough reaffirmed her eminence by winning three straight games. 

During the violent storm, a bolt of lightning had toppled one of the concrete guardian eagles from the upper reaches of the stadium.  "It may have been an omen that times were changing," Althea recalled.  Born August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC, Gibson a right-hander, grew up in Harlem.  Her family was poor, but she was fortunate in coming to the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, VA physician who was active in the Black tennis community. 

He became her patron, as he would later be for Arthur Ashe, the Black champion at Forest Hills (1968) and Wimbledon (1975).  Through Dr. Johnson, Gibson received better instruction and competition, and contacts were set up with the USTA to inject her into the recognized tennis scene. 

Tall (5'11), strong and extremely athletic, she would have come to prominence earlier, but for segregation.  She was 23 when she first played at Forest Hills, and 30 when she won her first two successive U.S. Championships, in 1957.  During the two years she won Wimbledon, 1957 and 1958, she was ranked No. 1, in the U.S. and the world. 

She was never completely at ease in amateur tennis for she realized that, despite her success she was still unwelcome at some clubs where important tournaments were played.  It was in doubles that Gibson accomplished the first Wimbledon Championship by a Black, in 1956.

http://youtu.be/wrpNlpu6ix0

 

Revised: July 18, 2013.