Wimbledon was behind her, and the great victory which finally marked her as a champion. Now Althea Gibson (opposite) was at Sewickley, Pa. for the Wightman Cup matches played there a fortnight ago. I had come with her to see her perform. Of all the girls I have seen on past Wightman Cup teams, none was ever more proud to be elected than Althea was this year. When she tried on her white blazer for the first time before the matches at Sewickley, her expression and her manner verged on exaltation. She stood quietly looking in the mirror of Margaret DuPont's room, turning slowly around to see herself from all sides. Finally she said, "I don't want to seem fussy, but don't you all think the sleeves are too short?" And then, apologetically, "You see, this is the first one of these I've ever had and I want it to be just right. I am so thrilled to be a representative of America in these matches."
Two days later, in the late afternoon following her final match with Christine Truman, we headed out onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike for an all-night drive home. In that long ride, with Althea in the back seat of my station wagon occasionally sleeping, occasionally waking, I learned more about this quiet, withdrawn girl than I had ever known before.
We had an adventure, to begin with. We hadn't been rolling along the turnpike for an hour when suddenly traffic began to slow down, with cars in both lanes pulling off to one side. The next thing I knew, Althea said, "Look, someone's in trouble." I looked, but couldn't see anything. Then I noticed she was looking up—and there was a small plane, lights blinking, wobbling from side to side as its pilot tried to find a landing space on the crowded highway. "Come on, Sarah," Althea said. "Let's get out of the car. Then at least we can duck if we have to." We got out on the double.
It was none too soon. Down the plane came, missing us by only a few yards. "Phew!" I said. "That was close!" "Well," replied Althea, "I'm glad he made it. The Lord was with him."
A little later we stopped for dinner. I couldn't eat, but Althea downed a sturdy steak sandwich and apple pie a la mode. Afterward we talked for a while, about anything and everything. About marriage: "I'd like to get married, if I could have a career too. I think this is possible if the man is understanding and if the girl doesn't get swell-headed like some movie stars who start believing their own press reports." About careers: "I think I should get an apartment for myself in New York next year, study singing, maybe write a book. Let's face it: I've gotta make good while the iron's hot." About pro tennis: "It seems to me I can do the things I want to, like singing and writing, without turning pro. Anyway, I haven't been asked. Honestly not. And I think it's gonna take Jack Kramer quite a while to pay off that $125,000 to Lew Hoad. And from what I understand, women professionals never have done well on tours compared to the men."
She slept for a while, then awoke when I stopped to refuel. "Don't you want me to drive?" she asked. "No, really not," I replied. "I'm all pepped up by that airplane landing and can't sleep anyway." She settled herself and went back to sleep again. Once she awoke, smiling, and said: "You know, I had a dream just now about Dr. Eaton, the guy who took such good care of me down in South Carolina when I was a kid." "Was it a happy dream?" I asked. "It was a wonderful dream," she replied. "I was at his home again and swimming in a pool. Funny, isn't it?" she was asleep again in five minutes.
Early in the morning she awoke again, and we talked some more. We discussed tennis players ("You have to be a nice person to be a tennis player," Althea said, "or you don't amount to much. It brings out your good qualities"). We discussed junior tennis hopefuls, we discussed juvenile delinquency ("I'm worried about that," she said. "It seems to be getting worse instead of better"). We discussed books, Althea asking me about mine. Toward the end, she said:
"You know, I've often wondered what would have become of me if I wasn't a tennis player. I guess a lot of life is luck." She paused and thought a while. "But not just luck, either," she went on. "You've gotta be ready for something, too. When you're ready for something, it happens. You just know it in your own mind."
"Are you ready for the Nationals?" I asked her.
"Sure," said Althea. "I'm not afraid of any of the players there."
"I was hoping you would say that," I put in.
"What I mean is," Althea Gibson finished her thought, "if I play my right game the way I should, then I feel I can beat anybody. But I certainly don't want to be overconfident, because if I play badly, I can easily be beaten by some black sheep. But I don't think I will be."