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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

TENNIS | Aug. 22 – Althea Gibson First Black on Tour

Althea Gibson, First U.S. Black Tennis Winner
This day in 1950 Althea Gibson was the first African-American accepted by the tennis authorities to go on a U.S. tennis tour.

The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA, now the USTA) accepted Gibson into their annual championship at Forest Hills, New York, the first African-American player to compete in a U.S. national tennis competition.

Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927, but was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She had to earn her silver.

Her family moved to Harlem when she was young. That is where she started playing tennis in Harlem at 14. Just one year later she won the New York State girls’ championship of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the black alternative (organized by players in 1916) to the all-white USLTA.

With the help of Hubert Eaton and R. Walter Johnson, both doctors, Gibson won ten straight ATA championships in 1947. In 1949, Gibson applied to the USLTA’s National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills (later called the U.S. Open). When the USLTA failed to invite her, Alice Marble – who had won four times at Forest Hills – bravely wrote on Gibson’s behalf to the editor of American Lawn Tennis magazine, criticizing the “bigotry” of her fellow USLTA members.

Shamed by Marble's letter, someone arranged to invite Gibson to participate in a New Jersey qualifying event, which she won. On August 28, 1950, at Forest Hills, Gibson beat Barbara Knapp 6-2, 6-2 in her first USLTA tournament match. In the second round she lost in a close match with Louise Brough, three-time defending Wimbledon champion. In 1951 she was the first black player of either gender to compete at Wimbledon.

The next few years, however, were difficult for Gibson. Her success was not universally welcomed. For example, she was promoted by Marble and others to compete in the Woodin Ladies Invitational at Maidstone in 1954 but the club was divided on Gibson's participation and she was not invited to play. The Cup was ended the next year, for that reason or other reasons, or a combination.

Gibson, however, came back from her disappointments and won her first major victory in 1956, at the French Open in Paris. The next year she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at 30. Gibson repeated at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the next year but then retired from the amateur tennis and went pro.

Gibson was elected in 1971 to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. She is credited with paving the way for other African-American tennis champions such as Arthur Ashe and currently Venus and Serena Williams. In the early 1960s, Gibson also became the first black player to compete on the women’s golf tour. After a long illness, she died in 2003 at 76.