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EAST ORANGE, N.J. -- Althea Gibson, a sports pioneer who broke the color barrier in tennis in the 1950s as the first black woman to win Wimbledon and U.S. national titles, died Sunday. She was 76.
Gibson, seriously ill for several years, died of respiratory failure at a hospital in East Orange, N.J., after spending two days in the intensive care ward, said Fran Gray, a longtime friend who co-founded the Althea Gibson Foundation. The charitable organization, based in Newark, was created to help urban youth develop their skills in tennis and golf.
"Her contribution to the civil rights movement was done with her tennis racket," Gray said.
Gibson was the first black to compete in the U.S. championships, in 1950, and at Wimbledon, in 1951. However, it wasn't until several years later that she began to win major tournaments, including the Wimbledon and U.S. championships in 1957 and 1958, the French Open, and three doubles titles at Wimbledon (1956-58).
"Who could have imagined? Who could have thought?" Gibson said in 1988 as she presented her Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
"Here stands before you a Negro woman, raised in Harlem, who went on to become a tennis player ... and finally wind up being a world champion, in fact, the first black woman champion of this world," she said. "And believe it or not, I still am."
Born to sharecroppers on a cotton farm in South Carolina August 25, 1927, and raised in Harlem, Gibson was a self-described "born athlete" who broke racial barriers not only in tennis but in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She even toured with the Harlem Globetrotters after retiring from tennis in the late 1950s.
But it was in tennis that Gibson had her greatest successes. She picked up the game while growing up in New York, slapping rubber balls off a brick wall. Though troubled in school, and often truant, Gibson was discovered playing paddle tennis in public recreation programs, and won tournaments sponsored by the Police Athletics Leagues and the Parks Department.
Musician Buddy Walker noticed her table tennis talents and brought her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts, where she began to excel. Through donations raised for her membership and lessons, the young Gibson became a member of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a club for African American players, where she met Fred Johnson, the one-armed tennis coach who taught her to play.
Gibson won her first tournament at 15, becoming the New York State black girls' singles tennis champion. Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson helped pay for her travels.
She spent her high school years in Wilmington, N.C., where the well-off Dr. R.W. Johnson took her into his family's home and let her play on his grass court. Dr. E.A. Eaton coached her there, and the 5-foot-10 Gibson would later credit him with helping her cultivate the grace and dignity she needed on and off the court.
"No one would say anything to me because of the way I carried myself," Gibson said. "Tennis was a game for ladies and gentleman, and I conducted myself in that manner."
In 1953, she graduated from Florida A&M on a tennis and basketball scholarship, and took a job as an athletic instructor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Miss. At the same time, she began her ascent in the American Tennis Association, founded in 1916 for black players.
Gibson won the ATA women's singles tournament ten years in a row, 1947 through 1956. But tennis tournaments outside the ATA remained closed to her, until 1950. In that year white tennis player Alice Marble wrote an article in American Lawn Tennis magazine, noting that Gibson was not able to participate in the better-known championships, for no reason other than "bigotry."
As a result of both her talent and such publicity, in 1950 Gibson was the first African-American to play in the National Grass Court Tennis Championships, the precursor of today's U.S. Open, coming within a point of beating Wimbledon champion Louise Brough.
She broke the racial barrier at Wimbledon the following year, but disappointment at losing nearly caused her to give up the game for the Army in 1955.
A year later, she blossomed during a nine-month tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department, winning 14 tournaments, including the French and Italian championships, and reaching the finals in the three she did not win. The powerful right-hander also captured her first women's doubles championship at Wimbledon.
Although beaten at Wimbledon in the singles and a final-round loser at the U.S. championship in New York, she was on top of her game and in 1957 began a two-year run as champion of the top two tournaments in tennis.
In Gibson's first appearance at Forest Hills, a violent storm interrupted her second round match, and a bolt of lightning toppled one of the concrete guardian eagles from the upper reaches of the stadium.
Later Gibson remarked that "it may have been an omen that times were changing."
She was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958.
Following her 1957 Wimbledon victory over Darlene Hard, Gibson was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City and an official welcome at City Hall.
No other black woman won the U.S. national tennis title until Serena Williams in 1999 or won Wimbledon until Venus Williams in 2000.
"For players like myself and a lot of other African-American players on the tour, Althea Gibson paved the way for us," Venus Williams said after her U.S. Open debut in Arthur Ashe stadium in 1997 at age 17. "So it's important that we recognize this, that I recognize it, and for me to know my history. "
In 2000, after winning the U.S. Open, Venus Williams recalled Gibson's accomplishments again.
"I knew she was watching when Serena won the U.S. Open and she's happy to see another black woman win in her lifetime."
She retired from the game soon after her 1958 Wimbledon and U.S. titles, and wrote her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. There was no professional women's tennis circuit at the time, so Gibson won no prize money and few lucrative endorsements.
"If she had been a half-step later (in her tennis career), she would have been a multimillionaire," said longtime friend and former New York Mayor David Dinkins.
She briefly tried singing, then signed a $100,000 deal to play in exhibition tennis matches before Globetrotter games in 1959.
Gibson took up golf in 1960 and became the first black woman on the LPGA tour in 1962, but won no tournaments and earned little money.
Inducted into numerous halls of fame, Gibson became the state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey in 1975, a job she held for 10 years. She then served on the state athletics control board until 1988, and the governor's council on physical fitness until 1992.
Her layoff from the council marked a turn in Gibson's fortunes.
In recent years, the former champion became ill and suffered two cerebral aneurysms and a stroke.
Her finances also declined, and Gibson isolated herself as she struggled on Social Security, not wanting anyone to see her condition.
When news of her situation spread in 1996, admirers around the country held fund-raisers and benefits to ease Gibson's financial burdens.
Letters with cash and checks also began to pour in, including one with two $100 bills from Mariann de Swardt, a ranked South African tennis player.
"I focused on your game when I learned how to play, and I wanted to thank you," the note read.
"She was a great champion and great person. We had a good relationship -- she was always there for me even when I was a nobody," Martina Navratilova said Sunday in Leipzig, Germany, where she won her 172nd career doubles title.
"Her life was very difficult, but she broke down a lot of barriers and doors and made it easier for a lot of us."
"Althea Gibson improved my life and the lives of countless others," said tennis legend Billie Jean King in a statement released Sunday. "She was the first to break so many barriers and from the first time I saw her play, when I was 13 years old, she became, and remained, one of my true heroines. It was truly an inspiration for me to watch her overcome adversity."
Gibson was married twice; husbands William Darben and Sidney Llewellyn are deceased. Gibson didn't have children.
A public viewing will be held Wednesday at the Newark Museum. A funeral was scheduled for Thursday at St. Phillip's Trinity Episcopal Church in Newark.
Information from The Associated Press, Reuters, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Bud Collins Tennis Encyclopedia and The Official Althea Gibson Web site was used in this report.
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