Gibson, first black to win Wimbledon, U.S. nationals, dies at 76 Sept. 28, 2003
SportsLine.com wire reports
EAST ORANGE, N.J. -- Althea Gibson, champion tennis player in the 1950s who was the first black to win Wimbledon and U.S. national titles, died Sunday. She was 76.
Gibson had been seriously ill for years and died at East Orange General Hospital, where she had spent the last week, according to Darryl Jeffries, a spokesman for the city of East Orange.
Gibson was the first black to compete in the U.S. championships, in 1950, and at Wimbledon, in 1951. However, it wasn't until several years later that she began to win major tournaments, including the Wimbledon and U.S. championships in 1957 and 1958, the French Open, and three doubles titles at Wimbledon (1956-58).
"Who could have imagined? Who could have thought?" Gibson said in 1988 as she presented her Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
"Here stands before you a ***** woman, raised in Harlem, who went on to become a tennis player ... and finally wind up being a world champion, in fact, the first black woman champion of this world," she said. "And believe it or not, I still am."
The eldest of five children, Gibson was a self-described "born athlete" who broke racial barriers not only in tennis but in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She even toured with the Harlem Globetrotters after retiring from tennis in the late 1950s.
But it was in tennis that Gibson had her greatest successes. She picked up the game while growing up in New York, slapping rubber balls off a brick wall. She then met Fred Johnson, the one-armed tennis coach who taught her to play.
Gibson won her first tournament at 15, becoming the New York State black girls' singles tennis champion. Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson helped pay for her travels.
She spent her high school years in Wilmington, N.C., where Dr. R.W. Johnson took her into his family's home and let her play on his grass court. Dr. E.A. Eaton coached here there, and Gibson would later credit him with helping her cultivate the grace and dignity she needed on and off the court.
"No one would say anything to me because of the way I carried myself," Gibson said. "Tennis was a game for ladies and gentleman, and I conducted myself in that manner."