Althea eulogized as pioneer
By CHRISTIAN RED
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Zina Garrison says Althea Gibson gave her 'the chance to be me.'
Althea Gibson was remembered as a "pioneer" and "groundbreaker" in tennis and the larger world of sports during a service at Newark's early-19th-century Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral yesterday.
Gibson, who died Sunday at 76 in East Orange, N.J., where she had lived for many years, was the first African-American to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Tennis Championships (precursor to the U.S. Open), which she did in 1957 and 1958.
Some mourners, like former New York Mayor David Dinkins, had met Gibson in the early 1950s, when, he noted, "there were very few African-Americans found on tennis courts.
"She had to be a fighter," Dinkins said, referring to the segregation and other forms of racism Gibson faced in the tennis world. "But this was the climate in which Althea achieved greatness. The world was a better place because she was here.
"A lot of folks stand on (her) shoulders," Dinkins continued, "and that includes my great friend, Arthur Ashe. Many were inspired by what she was able to do. She fought her fight. Now she can rest. Game, set, match."
More than 200 family members and friends filled the Colonial-style Episcopal church, including 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison, one of many who benefited from Gibson's influence on the sport.
"I for so long was supposed to be the next Althea Gibson," Garrison said. "But I discovered my role was to fill the gap in a path for women of color. Thank you for the chance to be me. You broke down doors for me and many others."
Alan Schwartz, president of the United States Tennis Association, said Gibson's career was all the more remarkable because she succeeded years before the civil-rights movement fully evolved. He told of one occasion when a hotel where she was being honored at a luncheon wouldn't let her stay overnight.
Newark Mayor Sharpe James added some levity to the occasion. He told of the time Gibson was his partner in a charity doubles match more than a decade ago. Their opponents? Ashe and Dinkins.
"I said to Althea, 'How are we going to win?' 'Easy,' she said. 'Hit the ball to David Dinkins.' We won. It was a great strategy," James said as the audience broke into laughter.
"Today we come to celebrate a good life," James said. "Althea Gibson crossed a barrier, defeated a barrier and added a rainbow to a previously all-white sport. We thank God for allowing Althea Gibson to pass our way."