7 Things About Sports Pioneer: Althea Gibson

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7 Things About Sports Pioneer: Althea Gibson

Year after year, and throughout history, sports and society have influenced each other, and are a reflection of how each one progresses. Understanding the sociological aspects of sports is possible by getting to know the people behind sports revolutions, and related historical events leading to change. Below are some facts about how Althea Gibson changed modern Tennis.


1. Althea Gibson broke color barriers

Long before famous female players such as Serena Williams graced tennis courts, the likes of Althea Gibson existed. She broke color barriers in tennis, and made history as the first African-American player in women’s tennis to win a tennis major, the first of any nationality in the French Open, according to Bleacher Report, a sports journalist website based in San Francisco. After being allowed to play in tennis majors, then became the first colored player to win, in addition to the French Open, Wimbledon, and US Nationals titles. She was known as the first woman to achieve a major success in the world of professional tennis, breaking barriers in what could have remained as an all-white sport.


2. On top of revolutionizing tennis, she broke barriers in Golf

She retired as an amateur after the 1958 season, and turned professional. As there wasn’t much money in professional women’s tennis, Gibson instead pursued professional golf in 1964, at the age of 37, where she pioneered another first, the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.


3. Alice Mable helped Gibson play in the Majors

Various successes in tennis allowed Gibson opportunities to attend college on a scholarship. As an African-American woman, Althea Gibson was not allowed to play in the majors until the 1950s, until she reached the age of 23. Before this time, Gibson thought of leaving sports altogether to join the United States (US) Army, but a letter of complaint persuaded the reluctant Lawn Tennis Association to admit Gibson to the 1950 tournament. This letter was written by Alice Mable, former number 1 American tennis player, acknowledging Gibson’s skill and talent, and pitting Gibson as a rightful competitor, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts”. Gibson then became the first African-American ever invited to play at Wimbledon, where she became a top 10 player in the US in 1952, and climbed to number 7 in 1953, as mentioned by History, history-based American television network.


4. Gibson’s accomplishments

In 1956, standing at 5 feet and 11 inches, Gibson made history as the first black player to win a Grand Slam tournament in the French Open. Over the next few seasons, won both Wimbledon and the US Nationals in 1957 and 1958. Additionally, she won doubles at the Australian Open in 1957, and Grand Slam titles in doubles at the French Open in 1956, and Wimbledon from 1956 to 1958, and mixed doubles in US Nationals 1957. 


5. Gibson reached Hall of Fame status

In 1971, Gibson earned the ultimate honor in tennis, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In addition, in 2005, a panel voted her appearance in the US Nationals as the number 1 moment in black tennis history, surpassing events such as the founding of the American Tennis Association in 1916, and Arthur Ashe’s first US Open crown in 1968 (Ashe was the first black man to win at the tennis majors), as mentioned in Heavy.com, news and information website based in New York.


6. Gibson’s mindset

With tennis, the world’s 4th most popular sport behind football, cricket, and field hockey, it’s hard to believe that its players were once so limited. A quote by Gibson shows explains what it took to overcome challenges in the sport of tennis, “I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”


7. Hardships of being a minority in sports

As an amateur and colored individual, Gibson was mostly unwelcome at most clubs and tournaments, despite winning championships, was denied rooms at hotels, and lunch reservations in her honor. Zenna Garrison, a World Tennis member in the top 20s during the 90s was known to have commented that younger tennis players have no idea what it meant for Gibson to not be allowed “in the front door.” Even African-Americans from other sports such as Jackie Robinson of baseball mentioned that additional effort was needed to block out racial slurs during gameplay, and wherein any mistake was rationale for denying all African-American’s right to play. Today, African-Americans, and women are easily represented in tennis with Venus and Serena Williams as the most notable.



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