Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title (French Championships, 1956), was honored Monday by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) with the unveiling of a sculpture outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
This was fitting in many ways.
Gibson, the first Black player to win a US Championship in 1957 (now called the US Open). Her sculpture sits outside the stadium named after the first Black man to win a US Open (Ashe ‘68).
The stadium is on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, named after the tennis legend and pioneer of women’s rights, which has been the home of the US Open since 1978.
And, as “luck” would have it. The unveiling of the Gibson sculpture on Monday morning took place steps away from where Serena Williams, arguably the greatest player (man or woman), of all time would take the court later that evening to begin pursuit of her 24th Grand Slam title and record breaking 7th US Open.
The sculpture is comprised of a bust of Althea rising from a granite block placed amid a group of five other granite blocks. Indeed, she was solid as a rock.
Gibson was a pioneer in the truest definition of the word. First Black player to win a US Championship. She broke tennis’ color barrier in 1950 at a time when, to say things were hostile, is a gross understatement.
She held her resolve through chants from the crowd at the women’s tennis championships that year, saying: “Beat the nigger. Beat the nigger.”
Gibson was on her way to a historic victory before inclement weather stopped the match, and when it resumed the next day, she would eventually lose. But a proclamation had been made. Black women, and by extension Black people, can play tennis too!
She continued to blaze trails in the face of the real horrors and dangers of being Black in America while playing a White sport.
During the unveiling ceremony Patrick Galbraith, President and Chairman of the Board, USTA said:
“Althea Gibson’s talent, strength and unrelenting desire to achieve made her a great champion. She made tennis a better place, by opening doors and opening minds, doing so with grace and dignity. She is receiving a recognition she richly deserves.”
During her playing career Gibson didn’t see herself as a representative of an entire race, even though she was. The growth of tennis in the Black community can be traced through Gibson’s playing lineage.
First Althea, then Zena Garrison, then Chanda Rubin. Now Venus and Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Coco Gauff. There are many others, but Althea started it all. Without Althea’s sacrifice there would be none of them.
“It’s simple,” said former USTA Chairman Katrina Adams. “She’s the first African-American to break the color barrier in our sport. By doing so, she made it possible for every person of color after her to have a chance to achieve their goals in the sport. This is a tribute that’s long overdue—period.”
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