Attains World Dominance
That August, the USLTA accepted Gibson's application. She entered court 14 at Forest Hills and defeated Barbara Knapp in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. Gibson led Denise Brough 7-6 in a tiebreaker in the next round, but a thunderstorm interceded. She dropped the tiebreaker 9-7, but made history as the first black to play at the U.S. Open. Gibson was ranked seventh in 1952, but fell to 70th the following year. Meanwhile, having graduated from college with a physical education degree, she worked in the athletic department at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1955, tennis coach Sydney Llewellyn convinced her to return to the sport.
Llewellyn rebuilt her confidence and her game. She honed her serve-and-volley game and learned how to be patient at the baseline. She had an overpowering second serve. And she began to refine her court behavior. Simply having competed at Forest Hills opened many doors for Gibson, as it would later for other blacks, and she toured Southeast Asia on a goodwill mission for the U.S. State Department. While touring Europe and Africa, she won 16 of 18 tournaments. As a result, she was invited in 1956 to Wimbledon, where she lost to Ohio-born Shirley Fry, in the final Wimbledon attempt for Fry in her long career. Fry also defeated her at the U.S. Open that year.
Unshaken, Gibson returned to the grass court in 1957. It was to be a noteworthy year for the athlete and elsewhere. Gibson had won the French Open, her first major title, in 1956, and the Italian singles championships the previous year. In January 1957 she was Australian Open runner-up. Then, funded by a consortium of Harlem businessmen, Gibson returned to England. Back home, America was simmering with racial tension. Only two months earlier National Guardsmen had kept nine black students from entering the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. But in July, playing "with an
athleticism never before seen in women's tennis," according to Sports Illustrated's Michael Bamberger, Gibson became the first black woman to win the Wimbledon singles title, defeating fellow American Darlene Hart, 6-3, 6-2, in less than an hour. The crowd "raised only an apathetic cheer" when Queen Elizabeth II presented the singles trophy to Gibson, Bamberger quoted his magazine's report at the time. In the States, however, the champion drew a cheering crowd at the airport in New York and received a Broadway ticker-tape parade.
"I didn't give a darn who was on the other side of the net," the Houston Chronicle quoted Gibson. "I'd knock you down if you got in the way. I just wanted to play my best." When she faced Brough at the U. S. Open that year, Gibson beat the 1947 champion for her first U.S. Open title, 6-3, 6-2, making Gibson the world's topranked female player. She repeated the feat the following year, winning both Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles, and women's doubles titles. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 and she became the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Unable to make enough money on the circuit, Gibson surprised fans and sportswriters and retired from pro tennis at age 30.
- Althea Gibson - Life After Tennis
- Althea Gibson - Awards And Accomplishments
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