Althea Gibson

The first black player to win Wimbledon

Althea Gibson, tennis player: born Silver, South Carolina 25 August 1927; married 1965 William Darben (marriage dissolved), 1983 Sydney Llewellyn (deceased); died East Orange, New Jersey 28 September 2003.

Speaking candidly about how she perceived her role beyond the confines of the tennis court, Althea Gibson once remarked, "I have never regarded myself as a crusader. I don't consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States."

As the first black world champion of either sex in the world of tennis, Gibson clearly felt burdened by her circumstances. This proud woman was driven by very powerful private engines but remained uncomfortable with living up to the expectations of those in the public who saw her as a symbol of progress in the black movement. Being placed in this predicament shaped her personality in a multitude of ways. Both on and off the court, she was not known as the most congenial of people, and yet her peers respected her enormously and understood her immense struggle for a recognition which would transcend the colour of her skin.

Her arduous journey to the top of the tennis world began later than she would have liked, precisely because her race prohibited Gibson from competing at significant tournaments held at country clubs around the United States. Not until she was almost 23 was she able to gain the opportunity to appear in tournaments against leading players. Until then, her participation had been limited to American Tennis Association (ATA) events for black players only. But then the former world No 1 and fellow American Alice Marble came staunchly to Gibson's defence in an article published by American Lawn Tennis.

An outspoken Marble commented,

Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet the challenge on the courts.

That 1950 article by Marble provided a crucial boost for Gibson and seemed to shame tournament organisers and influential officials into altering their ways. Later that year, more doors began opening at American events and Gibson finally was on her way. By 1952, Gibson had burst into the American top ten, moving up to No 7 the following year, then receding to No 13 the following year. Terribly discouraged and in the doldrums, Gibson considered quitting tennis early in 1955. But fortunately the United States Lawn Tennis Association decided to send her on a State Department tour that season which took her to India, Ceylon, Pakistan and Burma. Early in 1956 she concluded the tour by going to Sweden, Germany and Egypt. Her confidence was restored.

In 1956, the woman who had grown up in the infamous New York ghetto of Harlem matured immeasurably as a tennis player. She won her first of five major singles titles at the French Championships in Paris, and then captured back-to-back Wimbledon and United States championships in 1957 and 1958. By virtue of taking the two most prestigious tournaments with almost astonishing ease and then repeating convincingly in each of these towering events, Gibson was recognised universally as the game's greatest female player in both 1957 and 1958.

An uncommonly tall woman at 5ft 11in, she exploited her height and reach to the hilt, crushing opponents with the awesome power of her first serve and the decisiveness of her first volley. No woman had ever served with Gibson's potency before, and few females have since. She did, however, have a tendency to foot-fault because she was so anxious to get up to the net and back up her big serve.

As 1959 opened, Gibson decided to close out her amateur tennis career. She had no targets left to hit. But then in 1960 she played a series of professional matches against the glamorous Karel Fageros, and Gibson controlled these contests with unwavering ease, winning 114 of 119 matches. Then she put her racket aside again and turned her attention to golf, joining the professional tour and reaching reasonable but not unexceptional standards. She remained on the golf tour for only a few years.

Thereafter, she was selected as New Jersey State Athletic Commissioner in the 1970s. She was married briefly in the 1960s to William Darben, but had no children and divorced, and in the 1980s to her former coach Sydney Llewellyn. Gibson got herself reinstated as an amateur in golf but kept her heart in tennis as much as she could, serving on the International Tennis Federation's "World Champion" panel in the late 1970s and early 1980s as they selected the annual top player in the women's game.

In any event, Gibson was a formidable woman at every juncture of her life. She carried herself with dignity and without inhibition, making a deep impression on all who came upon her. Billie Jean King remembered encountering Gibson when she was a young player coming out of California. King was struck by Gibson's considerable self-assurance. "She intimidated opponents," wrote King in her historical account of women's tennis, We Have Come a Long Way (1988):

I sensed that intimidation when I was in the dressing room with her in the late

1950s at the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles. Althea was taller than everyone else, which made her imposing to begin with, and she had a swagger and arrogant demeanour that added to that aura.

Be that as it may, Gibson had good reason to present such a menacing exterior. She had confronted racism in her own way and on her own terms, overcoming it with dignity and quiet determination; she had challenged the authorities with her strong will and her racket. Her autobiography was entitled I Always Wanted to be Somebody (1958). Clearly, Althea Gibson more than lived up to that large billing.

Steve Flink