by Bruce Schoenfeld
Amistad, 320 pages, $24.95
This is an article from the June 21, 2004 issue
Tennis has a long and wonderful history of unexpected
partnerships. The doubles coupling of Israel's Amir Hadad and
Pakistan's Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi in 2002 proved that a Jew and a
Muslim could work together, battling points rather than politics.
Foul-mouthed bad boy Jimmy Connors and teen sweetheart Chris
Evert provided a strange and delicious love match three decades
That Althea Gibson, the Harlem-raised African-American daughter
of a South Carolina sharecropper, and Angela Buxton, a Jewish
woman from a wealthy family in North London, would form a
championship doubles team and a five-decade friendship would, on
the surface, appear unlikely. But the two had something in common
other than a desire to play great tennis: They were outsiders,
anathema to the exclusivism inherent in the sport's
infrastructure. Gibson was kept out of clubs and tournaments
because of her race, Buxton because of her religion.
Their partnership and its place in the tennis world is deftly
recounted in The Match, by journalist and author Bruce
Schoenfeld. Though Gibson is one of the seminal figures in
women's sports history--the first black tennis player to win a
major title--she spent much of her second act forgotten and
impoverished. Indeed Schoenfeld opens his book with a 1995 scene
in which Gibson, suffering from the effects of a stroke and high
blood pressure and holed up in her small apartment in East
Orange, N.J., calls Buxton, then living in Florida, for one final
goodbye. "I don't know what to do," Gibson tells her friend. "No
money coming in. No money for my medication. I feel dreadful. I
just can't carry on anymore. I'm going to commit suicide."
These words are stunning coming from someone who was once the
most famous women's player in the world. Gibson won 11 Grand Slam
titles--five in singles, five in doubles (including the 1956
Wimbledon championship with Buxton) and one in mixed doubles.
More important, she integrated her sport. The friendship between
Gibson and Buxton, seven years her junior, began at a tennis
exhibition in India in 1955. The following year the two partnered
to win the ladies' doubles title at the French indoors in Paris,
and they repeated the feat later that year at the French Open.
During the tournament at Roland Garros the two were pitted
against each other in the singles semifinals, where in the third
set Gibson broke the right shoulder snap on her brassiere. Buxton
raced over to the other side of the net, shielded Gibson from the
view of the crowd and escorted her to the dressing room. The
moment solidified their friendship for a lifetime.
While the emergence of Venus and Serena Williams and Gibson's own
passing in 2003 brought attention to her legacy, they also served
to reinforce how far ahead of her time she'd been. "Her
importance lies not in the trail she blazed for others,"
Schoenfeld writes, "but in how cold that trail was by the time
anyone managed to follow." The author does a valuable service by
bringing new light to Gibson's achievements and to her remarkable
relationship with Buxton. For any tennis fan gearing up for
Wimbledon later this month, The Match will make a worthy