Althea Gibson, Tennis Star Ahead of Her Time, Finally Gets Her Due

Althea Gibson, Tennis Star Ahead of Her Time, Finally Gets Her Due

But on Monday, the U.S.T.A. will unveil a granite sculpture of Gibson, who won 11 Grand Slam titles before she retired and became reclusive in her later years.

“This is not just a player who won a ton of titles — this is someone who transcended our sport and opened a pathway for people of color,” said Katrina Adams, the first African-American U.S.T.A. president. “If there was no Althea, there’d be no me, because tennis would not have been so open to me. Everything she had to do was three times harder than it was for the normal person.”

Gibson, who died at 76 in 2003, was often called the Jackie Robinson of tennis, though she disliked the term. “I don’t consider myself to be a representative of my people,” she told a reporter in 1957. “I’m thinking of me and nobody else.”

She became the first black champion in Wimbledon history in 1957 and accepted the trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. A ticker-tape parade up Broadway in New York feted her return. Gibson appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time that year, the first black woman to do so.

“Shaking hands with the Queen of England,” she wrote in “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody,” her 1958 autobiography, “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”

More than 60 years later, Gibson’s pioneering triumphs are rarely celebrated, though Serena and Venus Williams are among those who have expressed their admiration for her. The only competition that bears Gibson’s name is a seniors cup in Croatia. And yet the top three American women in the world rankings are black, a vivid reflection of Gibson’s breakthrough.

Now, as some African-American women with long-ignored contributions are at last getting their due, Gibson’s legacy is being pushed to center stage on multiple fronts. Two proposed films about Gibson — one co-produced by Whoopi Goldberg — are in the works. This past weekend, the city of East Orange, N.J., where Gibson lived for years and was the director of recreation, sponsored a series of events in her honor. Gibson’s family members are also seeking to have a portion of West 143rd Street between Lennox and Seventh Avenue where she grew up to be renamed Althea Gibson Way.

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