By Avry Lewis-McDougall
23 Grand Slam titles.
A mark finally reached by Serena Williams this weekend at the Australian Open to set the mark for the most all time in the Open Era of Tennis (1968 to Present) by defeating the opponent that in her carer she’s by far the closest to in the form of her older sister Venus in the tournament final.
It was a great match and showed that both women showed that age is just a number in a sport that wants to write off players who’ve crossed the age of 30. With what both have done in their careers, there shouldn’t even be a debate as to whether or not these two are among the greatest athletes of all time.
It was also so cool once again to see, standing in front of the world, two black women for one of the most prestigious titles in a sport that traditionally, for men and women has tried to throw up barriers to people of colour.
No longer also are Serena and Venus among the only black faces at major tournaments as Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys have now become mainstays on the WTA tour as apart of a new wave of black tennis players in North America.
All are important to the growth of the game for minorities but before all of them, one women took the first step of changing the racial make up of the sport. That woman was Althea Gibson.
In terms of the all time greats of the game, men’s and women’s her name doesn’t come up nearly enough, not just because she was the first black woman to play in Grand Slam tournaments, but she won and she won a dang lot in her illustrious career in a short period of time.
Gibson, a native of Harlem by way of Silver, South Carolina first rose to prominence in the Tennis world with her success in the 1940s and 50s on the all black tennis tour known as the American Tennis Association.
She was a natural at the sport as she in 1942 won her first tournament, a year after she started playing!
She’d go onto win the ATA’s national title in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947 to 1956 would win the ATA championship. You read that correctly, she’d win 10 straight tournaments.
No player in the history of the ATP or WTA tour at the highest level of singles competition as won an event 10 straight times.
As with all sports during the height of segregation in America, playing at the highest level against white athletes was not going to happen.
In the midst of her growing success, she’d find a very strong voice in wanting to see her play in larger events in the form of former #1 ranked women’s player Alice Mable. Mable would write a piece in American Tennis Magazine stating how embarrassing it was that the colour of Althea’s skin could keep her out of the highest events in tennis.
Soon after in 1950, Althea would become the first black player, male or female to play at a Grand Slam event by taking part in what was then known as the US Nationals Championship where she’d make it to the 2nd round and a year later made her Wimbledon debut and advance as far as the third round.
1951 also saw Gibson win her first international tournament, the Carriben Championship in Jamaica.
In between playing she also graduated from Florida A&M university and took part in a US goodwill tour of Asian countries in 1955 where she also partook in exhibition matches and tournaments.
In 1956, all would see just how incredible Gibson was as she’d become the first black woman to win a Grand Slam tournament by winning the French Open, followed by the Wimbledon and US National titles in 1957 and 1958.
These wins certainly didn’t go un-noticed States side as in both ’57 and ’58 she’d be named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year and became the first black woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated in 1957.
In total, after retiring from Amateur tennis in 1958, Gibson won a combined 56 singles and doubles titles in her career across the globe. The one thing with tennis that did escape her with major tournament wins was money like so many other players during the era of amateurs and pros being separated and Grand Slam tournaments bringing no monetary prizes, thus she’d turn pro in 1959 and also earned up to $100,000 by playing in matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. She’d also win the 1960 World Professional Tennis Championship.
In the mid 60s, Althea’s attention would turn from tennis to the world of golf as she’d make her debut at an LPGA event in 1963 and formally earned her tour card in 1964.
To get into another sport at the professional level is tough enough. To get into the sport at the age of 33 and finish in the top 25 of the money list in various seasons is something that only the elite of the elite could possibly manage to do, ON TOP of the hostile racial climate of America in the 60s, an era in which many clubs refused to let her use their clubhouse.
Unfortunately her career in the world of golf wouldn’t produce the results that she would have in tennis but she still paved the way for future black women to be able to play on the tour such as Cheyanne Woods, Sadena Parks, Ginger Howard, Mariah Stackhouse, and Robbi Howard.
In 1971 Althea would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, in 1980 the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and in 1991 won the NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award (awarded to a distinguished citizen of national reputation and outstanding accomplishment) the highest award that the NCAA can give to an individual.
Even though Althea played down her role as a pioneer, we have to see her as one. We needed Althea for Arthur Ashe, for Yannick Noah, for James Blake, for Madison Keyes, for Gael Monfils, Madison Keyes, for Sloane Stephens and for Serena and Venus. And for any of us who aren’t white, including myself who desired to pick up a tennis racquet and believe that we could play this sport.
Here’s to the next generation of black tennis stars, building even more upon that first step onto the courts in Harlem that Althea made many years ago.