By Mark Preston, USTA.com
She had a most remarkable talent, certainly. She was, as she many times described herself, “a born athlete.” But she also was born into a time when the color of your skin could limit your opportunities to showcase your talents. The world of opportunity – not unlike the world at large – were distinctly divided. To be black – more, to be a black woman – most often meant that talent went unrecognized and dreams went unrealized.
Tennis, by its very nature, is an individual sport, but perhaps no one ever has been so alone on a tennis court as Althea Gibson.
Just three years after the great Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, this brilliant young woman, born to sharecroppers in South Carolina and raised in Harlem, cast her spectacular glow upon the sport of tennis as the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships.
Her 1950 debut at Forest Hills at age 23 was at once historic and prophetic. When a violent thunderstorm interrupted her second-round match against that year’s Wimbledon champion Louise Brough, a bolt of lighting separated one of the monumental stone eagles from its perch atop the stadium, sending it crashing to the ground.
Afterward, Gibson said: “It may have been an omen that times were changing.”
Gibson would help to steer that change. With grace, dignity and phenomenal courage, she ventured out onto the game’s greatest stages and proved herself one of the game’s greatest players. A year after her Forest Hills debut, Gibson became the first black athlete to play at Wimbledon. She won her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1956. In 1957 and 1958, she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships.
Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles in all, adding six doubles crowns to her singles success. And every time Gibson set foot on court, she was creating history, beating a path for those who would follow and trying mightily to level the playing field for them. More important than capturing tennis’ most prestigious titles, Gibson conquered society’s most oppressive constraints.
Like Robinson, Gibson was flesh-and-blood proof that the color of one’s skin ought not to limit one’s dreams. The title of her autobiography, “I Always Wanted to be Somebody,” says it all. She knew she was good. She only wanted the chance to show it. Gibson held tight to the belief that if you had a champion’s fire burning inside you, no outside influence could dampen the flame. She believed that with dreams and desire as fuel, that fire might just become so bright that it couldn’t be ignored. And she was right.
Trophy count aside, it’s important to note that long before African-Americans and women flourished in fields as diverse as medicine and law and science and politics, there was Gibson, blessed with remarkable talent and even more remarkable fortitude who dared to say, “I belong.”
Once given the chance, she became a champion, a role model – and an icon. She became somebody. Somebody special. Through her talents and tenacity, Gibson opened doors and opened minds. That is the highest of achievements.