Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson/AP
Althea Gibson/AP

Althea Gibson became the first African-American to play in United States Lawn Tennis Association's U.S. National Championships. She was the first African-American to win a Wimbledon singles title. She was also the first to win the U.S. Open. This South Carolina woman had a remarkable tennis career in which she won nearly 100 titles, including five Grand Slam crowns and a total of 11 Grand Slam events. Her singles record at the Grand Slam events was 53-9. She was 16-1 at Wimbledon, 27-7 at the U.S. Nationals., 6-0 at the French Championships and 4-1 at the Australian.

Gibson was discovered on the streets of Harlem by a coach in the New York Police Athletic League. She loved sports and was very competitive. Her first contests were against teen-aged boys much more experienced than herself and when she won every match, the coach new he had a star in the making. Coaches took Althea under their wing and with the excellent coaching she received she was eventually more than ready to compete at the level of the United States Lawn Tennis Association. However, every time she tried to enter a tournament she was turned away from the pristine all-white tournaments.

Finally in August 1950, Althea was given her chance at the U.S. Nationals where she became the first African-American to play. She not only played she won her first match handily. Gibson went on from that event to a stellar career although it took some time and adjustment. In 1951 she played at Wimbledon for the first time Ranked #9 in 1952, it took her four more years to fully adjust to play at the higher level. Then in 1956 she had a major breakthrough with a win at the French Championships again becoming the first black to earn that honor.

The high point of her game came in the years 1957-1958. In 1957 and 1958 she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championships. At Wimbledon in 1958 she won her third consecutive doubles title. She was the first black to be voted by the Associated Press as its Female Athlete of the Year an honor she won in both 1957 and 1958. Following her wins in 1958, Althea retired from amateur tennis. There was no professional tennis tour for her to turn to in those days. She did play some exhibition matches at half time of Harlem Globetrotter games to earn some money. She was a ruthless competitor on the court and constantly searched for excellence. Yet in spite of her excellence she could not stay in the same hotels as the white players.

Not satisfied with her tennis triumphs, Gibson also took up golf and became the first African-American to earn an LPGA card. In 1964 she launched her golfing career. A few years later she would leave golf to try tennis again , this time as a professional. But time had caught up with her and she had difficulty beating young opponents.

In her retirement years she went on to teach tennis and work with young people. Althea Gibson always said she played tennis for herself. But, the sacrifices she made paved the way for future players like Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters.