A UNIQUELY DIFFICULT ROAD TO FAME
Over in London they were quoting Althea Gibson at 2 to 1 to win at Wimbledon this week. It seems hard to believe, even after her stunning record this past winter and spring on the international tennis circuit: 16 victories in 18 tournaments, 11 straight, including decisive defeats of the world's two top-ranked women players, Louise Brough and Shirley Fry. But win or lose, there is no question about Althea's being the most interesting player at Wimbledon this year, because she has traveled a uniquely difficult road.
Few people know how really difficult a road it was. Althea Gibson is not a girl who confides easily. Her crises over the years have been many, and they have largely been crises of self-confidence. As recently as last summer, for example, she would have batted any thought of being the favorite at Wimbledon right off the court. Last summer, in fact, Althea was ready to quit tennis for good.
"During the Eastern grass court tournament," says her old friend and teacher Sarah Palfrey Danzig, "I sat with her under the trees at the South Orange Lawn Tennis Club as she drank a chocolate milk, and we had a serious discussion. She explained that she was already in her late 20s and had her future to consider. She didn't think she had many more years of tennis ahead, and felt she should be planning now for a secure means of livelihood.
July 1, 1956
"For five years she hadn't lived up to expectations or improved the way people thought she could. She had twice been ranked among the first 10 women players of the country but never near the top. She felt she was at the crossroads. Should she continue her tennis or turn to something else?"
That question has been on Althea Gibson's mind through all the years, and small wonder. For if ever anyone started at the bottom and with the score at 0-40, it was this lanky, dark, courageous girl from Harlem who carried, along with her own ambitions, the burden of her race upon her shoulders.
She didn't even want to play tennis, really. She was a basketball fan, and good at the game. But her natural aptitude for tennis was such that she practically had to play. And once she started, it was soon clear that she would have to go beyond the restrictive limits of the Negro American Tennis Association and burst into the big time.
How that was accomplished is a story that has never before been told in full detail.
The color line was already breaking down in tennis by 1950, but its abolition never could become official until a Negro played in the top tennis event of the year—the National grass court championships at Forest Hills. Dr. Reginald Weir, a veteran player, had already been accepted into the National Indoor Championships. Althea had reached this stage, too, playing her first indoor championship in the winter of 1950, when she lost to Nancy Chaffee in the finals.
It was during the indoor Nationals that negotiations began between representatives of the American Tennis Association (Dr. Sylvester B. Smith; Bertram L. Baker, executive secretary of the ATA; and Arthur E. Francis, assistant executive secretary) and representatives of the USLTA (Dr. Ellsworth Davenport and Alrick Man Jr., the chairman of the tournament committee). Negotiations were conducted so quietly that neither press nor public learned about them until mid summer, when the news that a member of the Negro race would compete in the Nationals for the first time made headlines around the world.
"We wanted to be sure that we could offer a player who would be worthy of competing in the national championships," said the ATA's Mr. Francis, in recalling those negotiations. "We preferred to wait a year or two more, if we had to, before asking for an entry to be sent to a Negro player."
"THEY DEPEND ON US"
"Even today, we will not recommend anyone for the Nationals who has not qualified as a good enough player. The USLTA does not know the quality of our players. They depend on us. We appreciate that faith, and are very selective. And since Althea's lonely appearance in 1950 we have developed so many good Negro players that five men and three women were in the 1955 Nationals. We expect even more to play at Forest Hills this year."
Top members of the USLTA were interested from the very beginning of negotiations. When it had been decided that Althea Gibson should play the role of Jackie Robinson in the tennis world, the USLTA was the one to suggest which lesser tournaments the Negro player should attempt to enter.
"Dr. Davenport and Mr. Man both stressed the point that sooner or later it would be done," said Mr. Francis. "But they said it was no easy matter, since a majority of the national tournament committee would have to give their approval. They said we should realize that since theirs is a national body there would be opposition from certain areas. They added that there was no law which barred a Negro player, and they promised they would do all in their power to help us achieve her entry."
At the second meeting several weeks later, the USLTA officials indicated that they had discussed the plan with other officials but that they still could not commit themselves. Only the future committee could make the decision."
"They suggested then that we try to enter Miss Gibson in other eastern tournaments," said Mr. Francis. "That would permit her to show what she could do against first-class players as well as build up her reputation. That was the time they gave us the proposed list of tournaments and the people to approach."
Early that season, Charles Hare, former British tennis star who now was a member of the Wilson Sporting Goods Company's tennis department, wrote from Chicago to suggest that an effort be made to enter Althea in the National clay court championships at Chicago's River Forest Club. He wrote that he had already spoken to several officials and that they were favorably disposed to the idea.
That was the first successful step, and it came easily. Althea received an entry, played, and reached the quarter finals, in which she lost to Doris Hart 2-6, 3-6. The next big step was to enter her in the Eastern grass court championships at Orange, N.J., possibly the second tournament to the Nationals in importance.
Being accepted into the Eastern grass court championships was such a happy event for Negro tennis followers that Francis wrote to James B. Dickey, first vice-president of the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association, to express the appreciation of himself and the people of his race.
"In these days of racial and religious restrictions," wrote Francis, "it is very difficult to get people to think in terms of fairness, much more to act fairly, and your outstanding contribution of justice and fairness, your unafraid declaration that merit be recognized. as one of the important qualifications for an opportunity to play in your tournament, inspires us with the belief in the doctrine of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.
"Believe me when I say that members of my racial group, and of all groups who believe in fair play, will be everlastingly grateful to you and your colleagues who thought as you did and who by their actions have attested to the fact that tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, and of ladies and gentlemen."
All that spring, while negotiations to get her into the Nationals were under way, Althea practiced with Sarah Palfrey Cooke—now Mrs. Danzig—to polish up her game.
"It became apparent early," Mrs. Danzig recalls today, "that Althea's height and big service could be a great asset in women's tennis if she could develop a good follow-up volley. Her ground strokes were erratic, but with the tournament season almost at hand there was no sense in her trying to change them at this stage.
"She had never played on grass courts before, and the most important summer tournaments, including of course the National championships, are played on grass. We felt it was important for her to get some practice on this surface. I telephoned a friend of mine, Mr. Ralph Gatcomb, who was president of the West Side Tennis Club at the time, explained our problem and asked him if it would be all right for me to bring Althea Gibson to the club for practice on grass. He didn't hesitate a moment. He said, 'Of course, bring her along. We'd be happy to have her.'
"Two days later Althea and I, carrying our bags and rackets, took the subway from Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street and arrived at Forest Hills in 20 minutes. On that hot July afternoon we practiced for almost two hours, and Althea had her first taste of playing on a real 'lawn' tennis court. Actually her style of tennis was ideally suited to grass. With a big serve, good volley and smash, her unsteady ground strokes were not so vulnerable as on clay. Her natural timing and big, catlike strides were useful for the faster pace of a grass court. Being tall, she did have trouble bending down for the low bounces. But it was an impressive workout."
A JARRING NOTE
Althea reached the second round in the Easterns, losing to Helen P. Perez 1-6, 1-6. She defeated Virginia Rice Johnson in the first round 6-1, 6-3. She then was sent an entry blank for the Nationals. It was filled out and accepted, and the breaking of the color line in tennis had become official.
Only once during the quiet negotiations that brought Althea to Forest Hills was there a jarring note. A request for an entry to the New Jersey state championships was ignored. This too was handled quietly, except for a bitter letter from the ATA to that tournament's officials, which read in part:
"We are somewhat surprised at the lack of common decency you have shown by not answering us. Whatever decision reached, or action taken by your body, can never be justified by your procrastination, evasion and absolute discourtesy to us in not answering.
"You have exhibited the very thing that you apparently seemed to be afraid of in other people, snobbishness, prejudice and bad judgement, an un-American spirit that should not find its way in any respectable sport, particularly tennis, a game of ladies and gentlemen."
Curiously, the USLTA failed to appreciate the importance of Miss Gibson's first appearance in the Nationals on August 28, 1950. She and her first-round opponent, Barbara Knapp of England, were assigned to an outside court. Only a handful of spectators could watch the match which was played on court 14 and won by Althea 6-2, 6-2, though many tried.
When the second-round draw sent Althea against Louise Brough, the match was scheduled for the grandstand courts just outside the stadium. Nearly 2,000 spectators jammed the stands, and the Pinkertons had to close the gates.
David Eisenberg, New York Journal-American sportswriter then covering tennis, was an early fan of Althea. He remembers that match vividly. "I have sat in on many dramatic moments in sports," he recalls, "but few were more thrilling than Miss Gibson's performance against Miss Brough. Not because great tennis was played. It wasn't. But because of the great try by this lonely, and nervous, colored girl, and because of the manner in which the elements robbed her of her great triumph.
"Miss Gibson was terribly nervous when the match began, so that Miss Brough easily won the first set 6-1. But Althea settled down in the second set. Rarely since Alice Marble's championship reign has a woman shown so much stroking power as she did, especially with her forehand. She won the second set 6-3, and the match was squared.
"Miss Brough won the first three games of the final set. Again Althea rallied, cracking Louise's service three times as she pulled ahead to a 7-6 lead while the skies became menacingly black, almost as dark as the night, with only lightning lighting up the clouds.
"The great Californian, the winner of Wimbledon and National championships, was to serve. But she was obviously very tired. The courage and the power of this unknown colored girl had robbed Louise of her poise. Everyone in the stands sensed that a fabulous upset was in the making.
"But it never came about. Ten minutes of thunder and lightning finally delivered the deluge. It poured, and the match ended as players, officials and spectators scurried to cover under the stands.
"The match was over until the next day, but not the tension for Althea Gibson. Now the press descended upon her in the marquee. It was a trying session for Miss Gibson, one made much more difficult by several members of her own race who decided to make themselves her personal protectors. One was a young man whom Althea later said she never had met before, another an unknown woman. Both tried to keep the press from talking with Althea, and bitter words were exchanged.
"The postmatch incident left Althea in a state of near shock. The realization of how close she had come to beating the famous Louise Brough assured her of a sleepless night. The resumption of the match the next day was anticlimactic. Miss Brough had regained her strength and her poise. She won three straight games to run out the set, and the match, 6-1, 3-6, 9-7."
Whether or not Althea Gibson would have beaten Louise Brough that dark afternoon had the rain not come will never be known. But observers of the match could see that she was destined for a great future. Althea did not give up without a fight the next day. After Miss Brough won the 14th game, Althea fought back in a game which was deuced six times before she finally lost it. The match ended when Miss Brough held her service.
Now, six years later, she has arrived, after the lonely years, the often frightened years, the frustrating years in which it seemed she could not deliver on the promises of that first great performance. She has come through just when many observers, and even Althea herself, were ready to give up hope because she tended to become upset by too many trifles. But she has confidence now, as well as courage. Whatever happens, Althea Gibson has won her own personal battle.
And in one respect she has already delivered to her public, too. She has brought an electrifying quality back to tennis which has been sorely missing in recent years. Win or lose, with Althea on the court this is a very special Wimbledon.
BIOPERSE: Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson was born August 25, 1927 in the tiny town of Silver, S.C. (pop. 50). A big and active baby (8 pounds plus), she grew into a gangling girl in New York's teeming Harlem district, where her family moved when she was 2. Her father is a garage mechanic; Althea and her three sisters and brother lived in a walk-up tenement on 143rd Street, and Harlem's play streets were the only recreational area they knew. There she learned basketball, her favorite game, and paddle tennis, at which she excelled. It was while she was still at P.S. 136 that her skill at this rudimentary form of tennis, played with wooden paddles and a rubber ball, caught the eye of Buddy Walker, a bandleader and PAL supervisor. He gave her a tennis racket, which she accepted with misgivings, taught her to practice shots against a handball wall and arranged for her to join Harlem's Cosmopolitan Club. Here she learned the finer points of the game. When she was 16 she entered—and won—her first tournament, the New York State Championship of the Negro American Tennis Association. Seven years later, as the perennial champion of Negro women's tennis, she made history by receiving an entry blank to the U.S. National grass court championships at Forest Hills.
Meanwhile—though she still denied it—tennis had become her life. It won her a scholarship at Florida A&M, where she graduated with top honors in 1954, having majored in health and physical education. It won her a job as physical education teacher at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. It won her, last year, an international tour under State Department sponsorship, the turning point in her tennis career where she finally found herself and fulfilled the promise of her talent.
Shy, intense, grimly determined on the court, Althea is a warm personality to her friends. Her interests outside tennis are few: for relaxation she reads popular novels, goes to the movies. She neither drinks nor smokes, eats sparingly (after tournaments usually an omelet), sings occasionally in her old friend Buddy Walker's nightclub. Her future? "Tennis," she says. "I just want to play tennis, and more tennis."