Flushing Meadows will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Gibson’s landmark victory on Friday – but it is the late tennis player’s achievements off the court which actually secured her legend The US Open is in full swing, but if you walk down most streets in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, barely 12 miles across the city from Flushing Meadows, you would never guess that the world’s best tennis players are in town. Basketball is probably the game of choice in this ethnically diverse part of New York, though you get the impression that professional sport does not figure high on a list of priorities for most locals here. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find a large tennis mural on a wall around the back of the Brooklyn Beer and Soda store on Franklin Avenue.
The identity of the three players pictured tells you much about what it takes for tennis to make an impact outside its often privileged bubble. The painting is not of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or even Garbine Muguruza, the next women’s world No 1, but of three black players: Serena Williams, her sister Venus and Althea Gibson. While the Williams sisters have done so much to generate interest in tennis away from its traditional bases, they would be the first to acknowledge the debt the sport owes to Gibson, which will be recognized here on Friday as the tournament celebrates the 60th anniversary of one of its landmark moments. It was on 8 September 1957 that Gibson became the first African-American to win a title at Flushing Meadows, though in many respects it was her victories off the court that were of greater significance than her triumphs on it, which included two US and two Wimbledon titles.
United States Tennis Association
Until she was 23 Gibson was not even allowed to compete against white opponents, but her successful challenge to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s bar on black players paved the way for men and women of her color, including Arthur Ashe, MaliVai Washington, Zina Garrison and the Williams sisters. Katrina Adams, a former player who two years ago became the first African-American Chief Executive Officer and President of the United States Tennis Association, said: “Althea is the player who broke the color barrier. When she played at the US Lawn Tennis Association Championships that was a first. What she did, to go on and win it two times, and to win Wimbledon twice, really opened the door and broke the barrier for people of her color to say: ‘Hey, I too can do this if I have an opportunity.’
A ticker-tape parade
At last, in 1950, Gibson made a successful application to play in the US Nationals at Forest Hills, which was the forerunner to the US Open. However, it was another six years before she won her first Grand Slam singles title, in Paris, at the age of 28. In 1957 she became the first black player to win a singles title at Wimbledon, after which she was given a ticker-tape parade on her return to New York. She had turned 30 by the time she beat Louise Brough to win the US title two months later. Gibson retained her Wimbledon and US titles the following summer, but turned professional in 1959, when she signed a contract to play during halftime intermissions at the Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball matches. She then turned to golf and became the first African-American to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour.