Althea Gibson dies aged 78

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The Independent Online

It would be a disservice simply to describe Althea Gibson, who died yesterday, aged 76, as the precursor of Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters as the first African American to win major tennis championships. High though the hurdles were in the paths of Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams, Gibson had to scale a mountain of prejudice.

Born in South Carolina, in 1927, and raised in Harlem, New York, the tall, athletic Gibson was unable to make her name in the most elitist of white sports until she was 29 and competed at the top level of the amateur game for only three years before turning professional. She later played on the women's golf tour.

During that brief time Gibson dominated women's tennis, winning Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 for the loss of only one set. In those same years she also won the United States singles championship. Her first Grand Slam singles title came at the French championships in 1956. She won doubles titles at the French, Wimbledon, United States and Australian championships. In 1957, she represented the United States against Britain in the Wightman Cup.

Tennis was a segregated sport in the United States until the American Tennis Association persuaded the United States Lawn Tennis Association to allow Gibson, the ATA women's champion, to enter Forest Hills in 1950. It took seven more years for Gibson to work her way to the championship there.

Her family was poor, but she came to the attention of Dr Walter Johnson, a physician in Lynchburg, Virginia, who was active in the black tennis community. He became Gibson's patron (he later took Ashe under his wing).

"If she had been a half-step later [in her tennis career], she would have been a multimillionaire," said her longtime friend David Dinkins, a former New York Mayor.

Gibson was living in semi-seclusion in East Orange, New Jersey, when Serena Williams won the US Open in 1999.

"One of her friends told me she wanted to see another African American win a Slam before her time is up," Williams said. "I'm so excited that I had a chance to accomplish that while she's still alive."

Britain's Angela Buxton won the Wimbledon doubles title with Gibson in 1956, said of that Williams triumph: "Althea was looking forward to watching the final on television, and is pleased that it keeps her name alive, because deep down, Althea still believes she was the best."