The Greatest: The Men and Women Who Made Tennis. No. 4 – Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson’s story may just be the greatest in the history of tennis. Even today, more than 60 years on from her last Grand Slam triumph, the tale of how a poor black girl from Harlem overcame heinous racism to triumph on the finest tennis courts of New York, London and Paris is so powerful and so resonant that it is, frankly, astonishing that there has never been a Hollywood biopic of her; to date, there has only been the 2014 documentary, Althea. Of course that in itself may be a reminder that in many ways the racism that Althea Gibson overcame is still, unfortunately, alive and well in 21st century society, sport and cinema.

Althea Neale Gibson was born in 1927 in the small town of Silver in South Carolina. Unlike the three other great champions profiled in this series so far (Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen and Björn Borg), hers was not a gilded existence. Far from it, in fact, as her parents truly were the proverbial dirt-poor sharecroppers, who struggled to survive on a cotton farm. However, even that impoverished way of life was further reduced by the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the world is perhaps at the start of another Great Depression, one caused by the Coronavirus crisis.

So, it is perhaps easier than at any point since 1929 for the majority of people, even in the previously privileged West, to understand the kind of economic devastation that the original Great Depression wrought on so much of the world, including America’s South. As a result, Althea Gibson’s family, like so many other African-American families, became part of the “Great Migration”, as a huge number of them headed north (some of them literally trekking on foot) to cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit, in search of a better life for themselves and better life chances for their children.

Like so many black people who made that long journey north, the Gibsons ended up in Harlem, traditionally (and still today) the black or African-American quarter of New York. As a result, Harlem experienced an enormous increase in population and alongside it – indeed, accelerated by it – came the much-vaunted “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s and early 1930s. That was the artistic boom in which writers like Langston Hughes and musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong gave voice to African-American identity, largely for the first time, or at least for the first time that it was noticed by the wider (and whiter) American society. However, Althea Gibson’s own personal “renaissance” or rebirth would not come through art but through sport.

In many respects, the fortunes of the Gibson family did not improve dramatically upon their arriving in New York and certainly not as dramatically as they had hoped. However, in one respect their decision to move to Harlem proved incredibly fortuitous, as it exposed the young Althea to the game of tennis. Initially, that was through tennis’s cheaper, cruder urban cousin in America, paddle tennis, in which solid-wood paddles were used instead of stringed rackets. And Althea was able to play paddle tennis because the area where her family was unique in Harlem and probably in New York City as a whole.

She lived on 143rd Street, near to the Lenox Avenue that Gil Scott-Heron would immortalise on his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, the first ever rap or hip-hop album, nearly 40 years later, and it included a considerably large and designated “play area”, which was often fenced or barricaded off from the otherwise ubiquitous traffic of the city. It was not primarily designed for local people to play in – instead, it was meant to be used by New York’s Police Athletics League – but during daylight hours at least the local children, like Althea, were able to play in relative safety and space.

Even as a young girl, Althea Gibson was tall. She would eventually rise to a height of 5 ft 11, which was positively gigantic for the time and would still be above average height for a female tennis player today. In addition to her height and the extended reach it gave her, she was fast and aggressive, which made her a natural for paddle tennis on the street and eventually for actual tennis on a court (whether that court was made of clay or grass). Unlike, say, football or soccer, where so many of the early greats of the game, from Billy Meredith all the way through to Pele, first learned to play the game by playing it in the street, few if any great tennis players, other than Althea Gibson, first honed their skills by playing in the street rather than on a court. Ultimately, however, that may have been one of the major reasons why she excelled at tennis.

Not only was the bounce less even on the pot-holed streets of Harlem than it was on a proper tennis court, which helped the young Althea to develop her incredible hand-eye co-ordination, but the sheer street-fighting spirit that she developed in her youth was in stark contrast to the easy-going, “anyone for tennis?” ethos of so many of the richer white players that she would encounter later in her career. Exactly like the Williams sisters nearly forty years later, who came from the similarly impoverished streets of the Watts district in Los Angeles, Althea Gibson never forgot what it was like to play on concrete (at a time when there were relatively few hard courts anywhere in the world and most tennis courts were either made up of grass or clay) and she retained the natural aggression and attacking intent that she had learned in Harlem throughout her entire career.

Gibson’s domination of the paddle or street tennis games that she played eventually attracted the attention of one of the local men who helped to organise and run those games, Buddy Walker. Walker had already been exposed to sporting excellence in the form of the great Sugar Ray Robinson, the man still universally regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer who ever lived. Robinson, like so many successful or celebrated African-Americans, had invested in Harlem, buying a bar where Walker worked as a bandleader. Perhaps inspired by Robinson’s own rise from rags to riches (Robinson, too, had been born in the Jim Crow era South before finding fame and fortune in its North), Walker resolved to try and make the young Althea first a proper tennis player and eventually a tennis champion.

Walker arranged for Gibson to attend the wonderfully named Cosmopolitan Club, which was not another Harlem bar or hangout but a private tennis club for the area’s burgeoning black middle class. However, even though it was a vast improvement on the conditions in which Gibson had played paddle tennis, it was still far from being the kind of elite private club where so many earlier tennis champions, such as Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen, had learned their craft. For one thing, Althea Gibson is almost certainly the only Major champion in tennis history to have been taught how to play by a one-armed coach, the club’s resident professional, Fred Johnson. Even so, under Johnson and Walker’s tutelage, she maintained her startling upwards trajectory and soon began to compete in tennis tournaments proper.

To begin with, those were all-black tennis tournaments, such as the American Tennis Association national championship, where Gibson’s natural power, height, speed and athleticism, which apparently had all been further honed by her father insisting that she compete with him in boxing matches, allowed her to overcome all her African-American rivals. Then, it was at that tournament in 1946 that she was effectively talent-spotted by the two men who would eventually take over the development of her tennis from Buddy Walker and propel her towards tennis stardom.

Those two men were Dr Hubert Eaton and Dr Robert Johnson, two African-American academics who were memorably described by Bob Davis, a black tennis historian who was once Althea Gibson’s hitting partner, as “the two godfathers of black tennis in America”. Rather like Richard Williams with his own offspring more than four decades later, Eaton and Johnson were both lovers of tennis and determined to use the game as a vehicle for the personal and social advancement of African-Americans. And when they saw the still-teenaged Althea Gibson in 1946, they were convinced that they had struck paydirt and finally found the great African-American tennis champion of the future who they were looking for. Extraordinarily, they were ultimately proved right.

The two good doctors provided financial and academic support for Althea, turning her from an undisciplined and argumentative truant into a dedicated sportswoman. Under their guidance, she became the first African-American tennis player of either gender to break out from the all-black circuit and make a name for herself in predominantly white tennis tournaments. At a time when the legendary Jackie Robinson was breaking the “color barrier” in baseball by becoming the first African-American player to play Major League Baseball, Althea Gibson began to take her first steps towards dominating her own sport.

That was despite the fact that she, too, experienced the kind of open and openly hostile racism that had prevented Robinson from making his own breakthrough earlier in his career. Indeed, it has been said by some sporting historians that Gibson encountered and ultimately overcame even greater racism than even Jackie Robinson faced, for two main reasons. First, Robinson played a team sport whereas Gibson played an individual sport, in which she could not rely on the support or encouragement of team-mates. Secondly, as a black woman Gibson encountered the twin obstacles of racism and sexism, whereas Robinson only had to overcome the former.

Nevertheless, advised and encouraged by Eaton and Johnson, Gibson effectively became a semi-professional tennis player, at a time when the sport was still nominally “amateur” and would remain so until 1968, long after Gibson had retired. She began to win tournaments in America and abroad, and in 1951 she became one of the first black players of either gender to appear at Wimbledon. Eaton and Johnson then persuaded the formerly unacademically interested Gibson first to study at university and then to become a physical education teacher to support her playing career. However, by the mid-1950s she was on the cusp of making the same kind of breakthrough in tennis that Jackie Robinson had made in baseball, only on the international rather than the purely domestic stage.

Gibson had already established herself as one of the top female tennis players in the world, and the only top African-American tennis player of either gender, when she made tennis and indeed sporting history by becoming the first black tennis player to win a Major. That was at Roland Garros in 1956, when she defeated three very experienced and accomplished British players – Shirley Bloomer, Angela Buxton and Angela Mortimer – in the quarterfinal, semi-final and Final respectively, at a time when British women’s tennis ranked alongside American and Australian women’s tennis as the best in the world.

The Final in particular was a notable triumph, as it was one of the most bizarre straight-sets victories ever recorded in a Major Final. Gibson bagelled Mortimer 6-0 in the first set and it looked like she would just ease to victory in the second set against an apparently overpowered opponent. But Mortimer, who would ultimately become a three-time Major-winning champion herself, put up a real fight in the second set, which, in the era before tiebreakers, was only finally won by Gibson 12-10.

What followed was one of the briefest but none the less most important “Imperial Phases” in the history of tennis, as Gibson proceeded to win four more Majors in the next two years, including successive triumphs at both Wimbledon and the US Open. Although it was the two Wimbledon triumphs that made her world-famous, at least briefly, it was arguably the two wins at her home Major that were the more satisfying for her, her supporters and the wider African-American community. That was because they represented the completion of the remarkable journey that she had made throughout her life, from arriving in Harlem as the impoverished child of a family who were effectively IDPs (internally displaced persons) before the term was even invented to ruling American and indeed world tennis.

And then that brief but brilliant golden era was over, or rather Gibson chose to bring it to an end. The reason was simple – money, or the lack of it, in a sport that was still essentially amateur, or at best “shamateur”. Despite the best efforts of Drs Eaton and Johnson, and despite her own extraordinary athletic and tennis prowess, Althea Gibson was unable to make enough money either on or off court to keep playing at the highest level.

In an age when most of her competitors, like those original twin titans of tennis Tilden and Lenglen, came from wealthy families who could sustain their offspring’s amateur or “shamateur” status, Gibson had to abandon elite or official tennis to ply her trade as a professional. That was on the succession of professional and semi-professional tennis circuits that grew up, then just as quickly died, in North America, before the final, belated arrival of the Open or Professional Era in tennis in 1968. Unfortunately for Althea Gibson, that was a decade too late for her to make the kind of money from her prodigious abilities that she deserved to.

It is another testament to Althea Gibson’s innate sporting ability that she was briefly able to play professional golf as well as professional tennis. But in the 1960s, there was not a great deal of money available to the competitors in either of those sports, especially the female competitors and in particular the African-American female competitors, of which Gibson was the only one, or at least the only one of major (and Major-winning) status. Instead, she eventually returned to teaching and took up coaching, and even competed in the “Superstars” TV programmes of the 1970s that pitted the stars (past and present) of different sports against each other on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps even more depressing than the fact that Althea Gibson was unable to personally benefit, in financial terms, from her tennis success is the fact that her legacy in tennis has not been nearly as profound or enduring as it should have been. Whereas Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball eventually led to many other African-Americans following him into baseball and other team sports, to the extent that American Football, for one, is now a sport in which 70% of the players are African-American, in tennis, an individual sport, there has been nothing like that influx of black talent. Six decades on from Althea Gibson’s own golden age, the only black Major tennis champions have been Arthur Ashe, the two Williams sisters and, most recently, Sloane Stephens. By any standards, that is a relatively poor legacy.

Of course, Althea Gibson herself cannot be blamed for that. Indeed, the very fact that so few black champions have followed her on court only makes her own achievement all the more remarkable, especially given the fact that she faced racism that was even more virulent and widespread than that faced by those who followed her. In that respect, she was a true tennis pioneer, and is deserving not only of “Greatest” status but of that biopic, which hopefully, if belatedly, will one day be made.

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