Uncle Sam may be worried about his tennis nephews, but he's losing no sleep over his nieces. At Wimbledon this month, the dominance of American women, which has lasted for 19 years, is unlikely to be broken.
If European tennis galleries are good judges, the most exciting U.S. prospect since the relentless little court killer, Maureen (Little Mo) Connolly, will be the tall (5 feet, 10½ inches), 28-year-old Negro girl, Althea Gibson, who has just won her first major tournament by taking the French title in Paris. This was Althea's seventh tournament victory in succession, and her 13th since she began her world tour last winter at New Delhi, India.
Not that Miss Gibson (who was born in Silver, S.C., but whose home is in New York) is a newcomer to tennis fans in this country. She made her bow on American courts six years ago, to the accompaniment of a violent thunderstorm, the reverberations of which may yet shake tradition-steeped Wimbledon. That was on an August afternoon in 1950, at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. Althea, an unknown quantity as a tennis player and the first woman of her race to compete in the national tournament, was meeting Louise Brough, the blond stylist from Beverly Hills, Calif., who was already a proven champion and is the present Wimbledon titleholder.
While black clouds gathered, Miss Gibson fought to the brink of an astounding upset. After dropping the first set 1-6, she won the second 6-3 and then marched to a 7-6 lead in the decisive third—one game from triumph. The Forest Hills crowd, first staggered and then delighted, was solidly for her.
June 10, 1956
Then the heavens opened, and the court was deluged. Lightning sheared one of the huge concrete eagles from the top of the stands and sent it crashing to the ground. The match had to be discontinued.
The next day, refreshed and poised, Louise ran out three straight games to pull out the match. Althea seemed stunned. She never quite recovered her full stature—until now. Her contemporaries said she had the shots but lacked the killing instinct.
This—the vital ability to put over a knockout blow which distinguishes champions from perennial also-rans—may have been Althea's great discovery during her recent international campaign. A similar experience transformed players like Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge and Tony Trabert.
Until Paris, Miss Gibson was still missing the opportunity of hitting a forcing shot and following it to the net, which would have won some of those tournaments more quickly. So it seems that self-confidence was still her big problem. And it is a problem lodged, not in doubts about her own brand of tennis, but in the peculiarly lonely fight up the ladder which has been hers.
After she won the Italian title this year, SI's Rome correspondent, Walter Guzzardi, talked to her and did not find her entirely relaxed after her Far Eastern swing which had taken her through New Delhi, Rangoon, Calcutta, Lahore and Bangkok.
"Traveling around like this isn't easy. I'll bet I've lost 20 pounds on this trip. I eat a lot
, but on the courts I work it off. But it's tiring. Sometimes I had to give away the cups I won because I didn't have room for them in my luggage."
Althea admits to nervousness off the court: "I'm always nervous before a match—right here," she demonstrated by jabbing herself in the upper abdomen with a long, bony finger. "But once I'm on the court, I forget about everything but that ball.... I think about the ball.
"Sure, those girls like Connolly and Hart are tough. The toughest. But now that they're gone, don't think it's easy. If opponents are good enough to play tournament tennis, they're tough. I don't underestimate any of them. Think about the steady ones—always the ball back in play, the ball back in play. Every player finds that type hardest to beat."
She has come a long way since, aged 12, she used to think about paddling a ball around the streets of Harlem under the fatherly eye of New York's Police Athletic League. Slightly knock-kneed, she moves rangily around the court like a faintly awkward panther. She gives that tennis ball a very unladylike whack. Her service is big, reliable and bursting with power. Her backhand is strong and graceful, and she thinks she has improved it a lot: "I really worked on it all through Italy. It was inconsistent, but I think I've got it straightened out now." Miss Gibson's footwork was also occasionally imperfect, and of this she says, "I feel more at home on grass—that's one reason I'm looking forward to Wimbledon."
If Althea has got over her "runner-up complex", she will take a lot of beating at the All-England championships, although there she will face the best of American stars who weren't in the overseas tournaments which the New York girl won. They know that Wimbledon counts more than most other tournaments put together, and they will all be grooming for it.
First of these will be her old thunderstorm adversary, titleholder Louise Brough. Louise is always a strong competitor, and she seems to keep some of her best tennis for the appreciative English crowds.
The last non-American girl to win at Wimbledon was Dorothy Round, of Britain, in 1937. Since then, such great names as Marble, Betz, Osborne, Brough, Hart and Connolly have been among the procession of American winners. Louise Brough has won four Wimbledon crowns, but Helen Wills Moody's seven still stands as the modern record.
Maybe the strongest non-American contender will be Angela Mortimer of Great Britain, the Wightman Cup star who, until the Paris tournament, was something of a jinx for Althea Gibson. Pat Ward, also of Britain and finalist in the U.S. championships last year, is another threat—but a distant one.
Australia's Jennifer Hoad, attractive wife of Lew Hoad, is an improving player, and from down under there are other stout bidders in Mrs. Thelma Long, Mary Hawton, Fay Muller and a couple of youngsters. The Wimbledon lists will be dotted with interesting names like Pilar Barril of Spain, Jean Forbes and Dora Killian of South Africa, Suzie Koermoezi of Hungary, and the Italian glamour queen, Lea Pericoli, but these girls haven't shown enough to crack the American monopoly.
The Wimbledon title could go to any one of several U.S. girls. Miss Brough has to be rated favorite because she is a proven winner, but Althea Gibson, with her great strength and grace, could finally forget that setback by a storm and prove herself the world's best.
Beverly Baker Fleitz, the girl with no backhand (she swings a racket from left or right), will be a strong contender. So will veterans Shirley Fry and Dorothy Knode. The former is now first in the U.S. amateur feminine hierarchy (although officially ranked second to Doris Hart, who has turned professional), and there is no reason to assume she will not successfully defend that honor.
The U.S. is steeped in women's tennis talent. It seems to come in an almost endless flow. A stepladder appraisal would go like this:
Established stars: Shirley Fry, Louise Brough, Dorothy Head Knode, Beverly Fleitz, Althea Gibson.
On the threshold: Barbara Breit, 18, whose steadiness is remarkable for her years; Darlene Hard, 20, equally endowed with strength and charm; Mary Ann Mitchell, 17, whose game has impressed the experts; Mimi Arnold, 17, whose smile belies the fight she puts up for every point; Karol Fageros, 22, a truly pleasing player to watch.
Fledglings: Karen Hantze of San Diego, Calif.; Virginia Hess of Hamtramck, Mich.; Nancy Richey of Houston and Sandy Warshaw of Tampa, Fla.
The last four girls are all 13-year-olds of exceptional promise. We have no Wills or Connolly in 1956 but, if we could feel as happy about our men as our girls, we should be approaching the summer's big tournaments with no worries at all.