Fifty years ago, Althea Gibson became the first black player to win a title at Wimbledon. Paul Newman recreates that extraordinary triumph and assesses the progress the sport has made since then in the battle against prejudice
Published: 23 June 2007
New York, 1958. Althea Gibson walks on court at Forest Hills to defend her US Open crown. She looks up into the stands and sees a banner: "Go Back To The Cotten Plantation ******". Gibson turns to her opponent and whispers: "Someone can't spell 'cotton'."
Miami, 2007. Serena Williams' match against Lucie Safarova at the Sony Ericsson Championships is repeatedly disrupted by a male spectator. When she misses a shot he shouts: "That's the way to do it!" Before she serves he calls out: "Hit the net like any negro would!" Other spectators point the man out, but it is only after Williams complains that he is ejected. "I shouldn't have let it bother me because growing up in Compton we had drive-bys and I guess that's what my dad prepared me for," Williams says later. "But I'm not going to stand for it."
If the reactions of the two tell you much about changing attitudes towards racism - Gibson, who hated drawing attention to herself, would not have dreamt of complaining - the two episodes underline the extraordinary against-the-odds achievements of two remarkable women. As she prepares for the start of Wimbledon next week, there could surely be no greater motivation for Williams than the prospect of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gibson's milestone in becoming the first black player to win a singles title at the All England Club by claiming her third crown there.
Williams and her sister, Venus, often give the impression that they have little interest in anything outside their private world. Both, however, are well aware of the debt they owe to Gibson, who took a keen interest in their own rise to prominence until her death four years ago.
There are many parallels between the lives of Gibson and the Williams sisters, most notably their upbringing in deprived inner cities. Gibson, the oldest of five children, was born in 1927. When she was a few months old her parents moved from a cotton farm in South Carolina to one of the poorest areas of Harlem in New York. A difficult child who regularly played truant, she was whipped by her father and often stayed out late at night, riding the subway, to escape his beatings. She left school at 14.
Sport was another escape. Gibson's street was a designated play area, closed to traffic during the day. Paddle tennis, played on a half-sized court, was one of the most popular games. Her talent was quickly recognised, benefactors bought her rackets and she joined a nearby tennis club. In those days tennis was strictly segregated. Gibson quickly won the New York State negro girls' singles title and the national championship for black girls. Two doctors who were tennis enthusiasts took her under their wing and she went on to win the US national negro women's title, which she successfully defended for nine years.
Gibson's early attempts to make further progress were thwarted because she was unable to play at white-only clubs. Her big breakthrough came in 1950, when she became the first black American to play in what is now the US Open. The following year she became the first black player invited to play at Wimbledon.
Richard and Oracene Williams, who are now divorced, moved soon after the birth of Serena, the youngest of their five daughters, from Saginaw in Michigan to Compton, one of the roughest suburbs of Los Angeles, rife with drugs and guns; Yetunde, the oldest sister, was shot dead there four years ago.
The girls were taught tennis by their father on crowded public courts, though he always insisted their sporting prowess should not be developed at the expense of their school education. Their appearances in tournaments were strictly limited. Knowing the abuse and vitriol that would be directed at them in years to come, the parents instilled in their daughters a self-confidence and inner belief many still regard as arrogance and aloofness.
Richard Williams once explained his family philosophy. "They're looking to help each other all the time," he said. "My mom taught me that family is the oldest human institution, that it is society's most basic unit. Entire civilisations have survived and disappeared depending on whether family life was weak or strong. I taught my kids what my mom taught me."
Serena became the first sister to win a Grand Slam title when she took the US Open in 1999 at the age of 17. She has won seven more, including the "Serena Slam" of 2002-03, when she held all four majors at the same time. Venus won her first Grand Slam crown at Wimbledon in 2000, when she was 19, and has since won four more.
Gibson was a much later developer. Frustrated by the difficulties of making ends meet as a tennis player, she planned to retire in 1955 and had applied to join the army when the US Government asked her to go on an all-expenses-paid goodwill trip to the Far East to promote tennis. Her game reinvigorated, she won her first Grand Slam singles title at the French Open at the age of 28 the following year and enjoyed her best seasons in 1957 and 1958, when she won and then successfully defended her Wimbledon and US Open titles.
A turning point had come in 1956, when she joined forces with Angela Buxton to win the Wimbledon doubles title. As a British Jew who had suffered prejudice from the tennis establishment, Buxton found a kindred spirit in Gibson, who became a lifelong friend. Buxton remembers the cool reception when they won at Wimbledon. "I didn't really take much notice at the time because I was so elated just to have won," she said this week. "However, I do remember a small article in one of the papers headlined: 'Minorities win'. It mentioned how there wasn't a great ovation and only polite applause. There hadn't been a British winner since the 1930s, so there should have been an enormous ovation."
Buxton invited Gibson to stay with her at her mother's flat in London. Buxton recalled: "The manager of the block of flats came up to us one morning and said: 'I believe you have a black visitor staying with you.' My mother, who was 5ft 2in and very feisty, said simply: 'Yes.'
"He said: 'I've been told about her by a number of your neighbours. Do you have any idea when she's leaving?' My mother replied: 'I'm busy cooking the girls' breakfast at the moment. Tell whoever sent you to come and see me tomorrow at two o'clock and I'll explain everything to them.' Of course, nobody came."
Nevertheless, Buxton did not recall Gibson suffering the antipathy that predominantly white and middle-class audiences have shown towards the Williams sisters. Serena won her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open despite the open support of large sections of the crowd for her white opponents. She has not played at Indian Wells in California since being jeered and booed throughout the 2001 final against Kim Clijsters.
At the semi-finals of the 2002 US Open large sections of the New York public clearly favoured Amélie Mauresmo against Venus, while the Paris crowd at the 2003 French Open turned mercilessly on Serena during her match with Justine Henin. Her mother was later reported to have said that the Parisians wanted "a blonde and a ponytail" and that "we, as black people, live with this all the time".
Buxton has always seen particularly strong similarities between Venus and Gibson, both as a player and a person. "Althea was a very aggressive player. She thought she could win matches by playing serve-and-volley, though she learnt in later years to play at the back of the court more. That was why it took her a while to reach her peak.
"Althea was tall [5ft 11in], like Venus, and had a similar air of disdain about her. You never knew what was going on inside her head. Venus is just like she was: never showing any expressions and always taking her time, particularly when receiving serve.
"In her early days Althea was attractive to tournament directors as a curiosity more than anything else. She actually looked like a young man. She had short hair and wore shorts and a vest. She was very tall and slender. In her later years she became very professional because she knew she had to stay healthy to earn money, although she still smoked like a drain and drank all my whisky. She loved having a smoke after a match, because it calmed her down."
Buxton believes that Gibson's breakthrough paved the way for the likes of Arthur Ashe in later years, though she was always careful to avoid political issues. "She had a lot of friends and family in the southern states who suffered terribly from racism, but she never talked about it and I never asked," Buxton said. "She would deny anything about racism."
Bruce Schoenfeld, author of The Match, which describes the friendship of Buxton and Gibson, said that the American never saw herself as a pioneer. "It was very important to her that she played for herself, that she wasn't doing things on behalf of others. She always thought: 'The best thing that I could do for people of my colour would be to be the best player that I can be.'
"She didn't want to consciously carry the banner. Quite a lot of people regretted the fact that she didn't take part in the civil rights movement. It just didn't interest her. She felt she had enough on her plate just to make a life for herself."
Buxton said that Gibson's silence on political issues did not mean she was not interested in them. The same probably cannot be said of the Williams sisters. When Serena was questioned in Miami two years ago about the tough upbringing of her next opponent, the Israeli Shahar Peer, she replied: "You know what, I'm ignorant to the whole West Bank settlement of Israel. I'm American."
Venus, too, was widely criticised at the US Open in the same year for her response to a question about Hurricane Katrina, which had devastated New Orleans. "I don't really watch the news," she said. "In some ways I'm very unaware of the latest happenings in the world. I kind of leave it like that because sometimes it's better not to know."
Gibson retired after her second US Open triumph in 1958. She went on to play exhibition matches staged before Harlem Globetrotter basketball games and made an unsuccessful attempt to build a career in golf; in 1962 she became the first black woman to play on the LPGA tour. She later became state commissioner for athletics in New Jersey. Plagued by ill health in her final years, she lived in poverty until Buxton rallied support around the world and raised money to help her.
"After she retired her life was a constant battle to cash in on what was her very real fame," Schoenfeld said. "Unfortunately, she earned fame but not fortune."
The Williams sisters are already wealthy beyond any dreams that Gibson might have harboured. With their interests in interior design, fashion and the movies, they have become a mini industry in their own right.
Serena, who has acting ambitions, has even talked about the possibility of producing a film about Gibson's life. "I think Althea Gibson has a great story," she said after reading a prospective film script. "She did so much for people like me to play this sport. She was the first, even before Arthur Ashe. I think she had a great life and I just think she's a little bit overlooked."
Asked if she would like to play the part of Gibson, Serena replied: "Yes, I'd be really interested. But I'd have to learn how to hit a solid one-handed backhand."
Half a century later tennis is still a white-dominated sport
In the 2007 official guide to professional tennis there are profiles of 364 of the world's leading players. There are nine black faces. Althea Gibson may have opened the door for black players across the world, but at the top it is still a white-dominated sport.
Arthur Ashe and Evonne Goolagong both won Grand Slam singles titles, but between the latter's Wimbledon win in 1980 and Serena Williams' first US Open triumph 19 years later high points for black players were few and far between. Zina Garrison, now the US Fed Cup captain, was runner-up at Wimbledon in 1990, as was MaliVai Washington six years later.
However, Chris Widmaier, of the US Tennis Association, says that the success of the Williams sisters is bringing an increasing number of black players into the sport.
"A third of the new tennis players here in the last three years have been of either African-American or Hispanic descent," he said. "You can't say exactly what the reasons are, but I'm sure the success of Serena (left) and Venus has been a major impetus. They've been fantastic role models. They're champions, they lead well-rounded lives and they're very inspirational. They clearly resonate loudly within the African American community, which is understandable considering the way they came out of the public parks in Compton."