Sunday, July 8, 2007

McBone Tribute: Althea Gibson

Venus Williams won The Championships, Wimbledon this past weekend, notching an impressive fourth singles title in tennis' greatest event. Sister Serena has won two. Know who else won twice at Wimbledon? Althea Gibson, who was the first black tennis player of either sex to integrate the all-white tournament. This weekend marked the 50th aniversary of Gibson's first Wimbledon championship, when she whipped Darlene Hard in straight sets.
In fact, before Venus won for the first time in 2000, no other black woman had won at Wimbledon since Gibson did it for the second time, in 1958.
I can't imagine the kind of crap Althea Gibson had to put up with as an African American trying to make her mark on such a gentrified game like tennis in the 1950s. She did it though, and with aplomb, winning five major championships by the time she was done. Not bad for the daughter of South Carolina sharecroppers. And, as if such a rise to greatness wasn't enough, Gibson was a good enough athlete to have been the first black woman to play golf on the LPGA tour.
Jackie Robinson has secured his place in history. The legacy of Althea Gibson, no less a trailblazer for her race and sport, has become an obscure figure. Why? Three reasons I can think of: 1) Tennis in the U.S. ranks well behind baseball in popularity. 2) We still don't give much of a damn when it comes to women's sports. 3) In the States, black women occupy a lower rung in the social ladder than almost any other class of citizen. Of course Wimbledon is in England, and I can't speak for the Brits, but let's not forget that Gibson also won 2 U.S. Open championships in her day.
McBone has not forgotten Gibson's contribution. You can bet the Williams sisters haven't either. I'm guessing Zina Garrison, Yannick Noah and MaliVai Washington well know the path that Gibson laid for them. Arthur Ashe became the first black male champion at Wimbledon in 1975. He would have been the first to tell you how vital Gibson's role was for him and any other athlete for whom doors had been shut.
Time to give this lady the recognition she deserves.

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