Baselines and Battlelines: Part One

By Jay Stewart
Updated: September 2, 2007

WRITER’S NOTE: Greetings, tennis fans. The publishers of BASN have allowed us to share our musings with you. This is good news for those hoping to learn a bit more about tennis, or cure their insomnia. And the use of “we” or “us” in the article refers to the author (Jay Stewart) and his co-collaborators, and is not indicative of any implied endorsement by this site.

TODAY: How Althea Gibson changed the face of tennis.

NEW YORK — This past Monday, August 27th, 2007, the USTA presented a tribute to Althea Gibson honoring the 50th anniversary of her becoming the first black player to win the singles title in the U.S. Championships (now Open). And the Saturday before, the 25th, would have been Althea’s 80th birthday.

We’re going to take this opportunity to look at who Althea was, presenting some facts widely known, and some largely unknown, and examine what has changed in the sport of tennis in regards to black players, and what hasn’t. Part one looks at Althea herself.

Althea Gibson was born in the south, but moved to Harlem at a young age. She was always headstrong, and somewhat of a delinquent. She was introduced to tennis at a late age and, thus, was further behind in her development as a player. The racial barriers she faced only compounded this.

As Althea began to blossom as a player, she dominated the American Tennis Association national championships. (The ATA was created to give black tennis players opportunities to compete, since they were barred from competing in United States Lawn Tennis Association events.) Althea’s dominance was such that she was thought to be ready to step up and compete against the top amateurs. But the USLTA, which ran the US tournaments, would not allow blacks to compete. It took immense public pressure, including a scolding from former champion Alice Marble, to persuade the USLTA to relent. Finally, they did, and she made her debut at the 1950 US Championships, becoming the first black player ever permitted to play it or any Grand Slam tournament.

After a routine opening round win, Althea played Louise Brough (whose first name, ironically, is also Althea) in the 2nd round. Althea was leading the match when a horrendous storm opened up. Lightning actually struck a stone statue, sending it crashing earthward. Some said it was a sign of change. Others said it indicated that the gods were angry over how Althea was treated.

Althea was harassed mercilessly by racist fans. The PG version offered in most historical accounts has fans yelling “knock her out of there”. But others recall fans repeating the much more crass “beat the nigger”. It is widely known that Althea faced such harassment the first time she played the US Nationals in 1950.

But although many like to think that was the end of such displays, it wasn’t. She faced hostility throughout her career, at virtually every tournament she played, even in her final appearance at the US Nationals in 1958 as the defending champion. And people criticize her for having a “chip on her shoulder”? What sane person wouldn’t?

Althea’s career did not progress smoothly, She had to adjust to the top level of play on the fly. Thus her development was slow in coming. And things weren’t made any easier by the chilly reception she received in the locker room. The top players claim it was because Althea was “arrogant and aloof”. (Sound familiar, Williams fans?)

The lower ranked players told the opposite story — that the top players were very rude to Althea. While Gibson could be (justifiably) defensive, her track record shows that whenever someone reached out to her, they became friends.

As Althea struggled to adjust to the highest levels of the game, and the constant harassment she endured, she made little progress in terms of results. She was getting so frustrated that she was contemplating quitting the sport altogether. Then fate stepped in again.

At the end of 1955, the US State Department asked her to tour Southeast Asia with Karol Fageros, Ham Richardson, and Bob Perry. Even though Gibson’s inclusion was largely a P.R. move to show how “open” the United States was, it gave her a renewed enthusiasm for the game. She began winning tournaments.

When the State Dept. tour ended, Althea got offers from numerous countries. In the amateur days, players didn’t get prize money, and only played for “expense money”. Althea seized the opportunity to travel around, and play top level opponents. It worked wonders on her game. She developed from a dangerous raw talent to a legit grand slam title contender, completing stage two of her development.

So, not only did she win such prestigious events as the Italian Championships, she also claimed her first Grand Slam singles title, the 1956 French Championships. She became the first black player to win a GS singles title. But her success came at a cost. Althea had literally been playing every week coming into Wimbledon. She was completely out of gas, and wound up bowing in the quarters to the woman who would become her nemesis, Shirley Fry.

After a much needed break, Althea returned to action and resumed winning tournaments. She got to the US final, only to be stopped by Fry again. When all was said and done, Althea may have put together one of the single most remarkable seasons in tennis history in 1956, winning, by our unofficial count, 23 singles titles (besting the officially recognized record of 21) and by best estimate surpassing King’s record of 110 plus singles match wins. But Althea felt unfulfilled because she didn’t win the 2 biggest prizes, and kept losing to the same player (Fry).

She determined to change that. She enlisted the aid of Sydney Llewellyn, who taught her how to use angles better, and changed her grip to improve her volleys. This would begin the final phase of transformation for Althea — from Grand Slam title threat to dominant champion.

Unfortunately, this transformation wasn’t complete in time for her to win the 1957 Australian Championships, as she lost yet again to Fry. But the signs were there. Australian writer Joseph Johnson witnessed the final firsthand, and recounted things thusly in his book “Grand Slam Australia”: “Fry had been a top player for years, whilst Gibson had arrived on the scene fairly recently…” Johnson explained how Fry had been playing junior tournaments while Gibson began her long journey to the number 1 spot. He continues: “But she wasn’t quite there yet, as we found out in the final. Being called a number of times for foot faulting seemed to upset her concentration. Fry was running down everything as usual, and thriving on unforced errors by Gibson at crucial stages of the match. It would not be grossly unfair to Fry to say that her greater experience triumphed over her opponent’s superior talent, 6-3 6-4.”

The foot fault issue would be a recurring theme in Althea’s career. She was called for them constantly and, some thought, erroneously. Mr. Johnson’s view that Gibson’s talent was superior, yet not quite polished, disagrees with what some others (media and former players) claim– that she won only due to retirements of previous greats and weakened fields. That contention ignores the very real improvements made in Althea’s game. And some of the fields Margaret Smith Court had to beat to win a few of her Australian titles were hardly sterling.

But the players can only beat who is in front of them. A good player can win one slam due to lack of opposition. Two would be stretching it. Once you get to three or more, you are a legit champion, regardless of who you faced. Yet, criticisms of Althea reflected a continuing theme in the tennis media — trying to diminish the accomplishments of black players. (More on this in part 2, as we examine the issues black players have faced since Althea.) Althea went on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in both 1957 and 1958. It was as a grand slam champion that Althea struck a blow for equality, insisting that her parade be fully integrated, not segregated.

After an all-too-brief peak (about 14 months), Althea left the amateur ranks because she needed to make a living. She tried her hand at singing, and professional golf (becoming the first black player on the LPGA tour as well). But she wound up coming back to tennis.

She made a few failed comeback efforts in the early Open era, including being entered in the qualifying draw for the 1973 US Open before withdrawing. But she was far too old, at age 46, to be much of a factor.

She thus turned her attention to the youngsters. In the late 1970′s, Althea ran an annual camp for promising young black players. In 1979, she convince Leslie Allen to change her style of play and use her height to become an effective net rusher. 2 years later, Allen became the first black player to win a WTA Tour title in the Open era, beating a grand slam title winner, Hana Mandlikova, in the final.

In 1980, Althea’s group included a young Zina Garrison, whom she taught the importance of hard work. Althea also told Zina nothing would be given to her, and she’d have to work harder than the white girls. She’d have to be better than everyone else, and even that might not be enough. (As we’ll see in part 2, Althea’s words would ring true.) Althea also taught Zina to play each point as if the match depended on it, since any point could be the one that swings the match.

Unfortunately, as Althea got older and more frail, and retreated from the public eye, she became a forgotten champion. Even the instructors in the junior development league founded by Arthur Ashe were teaching kids that Ashe was the first black player to win Wimbledon. Her achievements became as disregarded as the obstacles she had to face to reach them. She came full circle, becoming what she was when the USLTA first allowed her to play — the unwanted champion.

Her story is fascinating enough to warrant a movie, but there have been none. She has largely ignored by the powers that be. Fortunately, the players remembered her, with many contributing when word of her financial difficulties came to light. From the expected, Zina, to the unexpected, Mariaan de Swardt, a white player from South Africa, the land once ruled by apartheid, players donated money in tribute to the influence Althea had on their lives and/or games.

It’s long past time that the tennis community remembered her. But, as expected, it was a ceremony that focused on the achievements and glossed over the hardships she endured (some of which were put in place by the USTA’s predecessor, the USLTA). What was also expected is that there has been precious little detailed coverage of who Althea was and what she endured.

The only piece of significance by a prominent member of the tennis media was a very nice article by the legendary Bud Collins, who documented some of Althea’s tribulations, including not being allowed to stay in player hotels/housing, and often being forced to sleep in her car. Whether the other tennis media sources skipped over it because they just don’t want to pay tribute to her, or because they don’t want to leave themselves open to charges of hypocrisy by criticizing past media for how Althea was treated, who can be sure?

And just why might they be labeled hypocrites? Tune in for part two. See you then.

NEXT: What Still Needs To Be Changed.