On August 22, 1950, officials of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) accept Althea Gibson into their annual championship at Forest Hills, New York, making her the first African American player to compete in a U.S. national tennis competition.
Growing up in Harlem, the young Gibson was a natural athlete. She started playing tennis at the age of 14 and the very next year won her first tournament, the New York State girls’ championship, sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA), which was organized in 1916 by black players as an alternative to the exclusively white USLTA. After prominent doctors and tennis enthusiasts Hubert Eaton and R. Walter Johnson took Gibson under their wing, she won her first of what would be 10 straight ATA championships in 1947.
In 1949, Gibson attempted to gain entry into the USLTA’s National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills, the precursor of the U.S. Open. When the USLTA failed to invite her to any qualifying tournaments, Alice Marble—a four-time winner at Forest Hills—wrote a letter on Gibson’s behalf to the editor of American Lawn Tennis magazine. Marble criticized the “bigotry” of her fellow USLTA members, suggesting that if Gibson posed a challenge to current tour players, “it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” Gibson was subsequently invited to participate in a New Jersey qualifying event, where she earned a berth at Forest Hills.
On August 28, 1950, Gibson beat Barbara Knapp 6-2, 6-2 in her first USLTA tournament match. She lost a tight match in the second round to Louise Brough, three-time defending Wimbledon champion. Gibson struggled over her first several years on tour but finally won her first major victory in 1956, at the French Open in Paris. She came into her own the following year, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at the relatively advanced age of 30.
Gibson repeated at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the next year but soon decided to retire from the amateur ranks and go pro. At the time, the pro tennis league was poorly developed, and Gibson at one point went on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis during halftime of their basketball games. In the early 1960s, Gibson became the first black player to compete on the women’s golf tour, though she never won a tournament. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.
Though she once brushed off comparisons to Jackie Robinson, the trailblazing black baseball player, Gibson has been credited with paving the way for African American tennis champions such as Arthur Ashe and, more recently, Venus and Serena Williams. After a long illness, she died in 2003 at the age of 76.
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