Althea Gibson, the gangly Harlem street urchin who parlayed an asphalt championship in paddle tennis into an unlikely reign as queen of the lawns of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, died Sunday. She was 76.
From New York Slums to Genteel Worlds of Tennis
By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr.
Although Althea Gibson won 56 tournaments, including five Grand Slam singles titles, she has been chiefly remembered as the first black Wimbledon champion and the first black player to enter and win the national championship at Forest Hills.
But it is easy to forget that in the rarefied world of tennis, it was hardly more remarkable that a black player would enter and win the All England and American championships than that the champion would be a rough-hewn product of the New York slums, a street-brawling chronic truant and eighth-grade dropout who haunted pool halls and bowling lanes and made the back alleys her home.
Yet that was exactly what Gibson was when she was growing up in Harlem far removed from the two genteel worlds of tennis: the white country club set and the network of black doctors, lawyers and other professionals who pursued tennis on private courts of their own.
For all her natural ability and gritty determination, Gibson owed much of her later success to that very network of black tennis enthusiasts — and to a geographic coincidence.
Althea Gibson was born in a sharecropper's shack in Silver, S.C., on Aug. 25, 1927, and brought to New York by her parents when she was a few months old. By chance the family moved into an apartment on a West 143rd Street block between Lenox and Seventh Avenues that was a designated play street.
And by further chance, when the volunteers from the Police Athletic League closed the block to traffic and set up their recreation equipment, the spot they chose to mark off as a paddle tennis court was right in front of the Gibsons' front stoop.
A natural athlete who excelled in virtually every sport she ever tried, including basketball and softball, Gibson took up paddle tennis at 9 and proved especially adept at the new sport, winning a citywide championship when she was 12.
In 1941, when she was 13, Buddy Walker, a society Harlem bandleader and part-time P.A.L. supervisor, urged her to graduate to tennis. He bought her two rackets and introduced her to friends at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a predominantly black club that played on courts on 149th Street just a few blocks away but a world removed from the neighborhood she had known. There Gibson was coached by Fred Johnson, the one-armed club pro, and taken up by the club's members, who taught her some more important lessons.
As she put it in her 1958 autobiography, "I Always Wanted to Be Somebody," the club attracted "the highest class" of Harlem residents, people, she noted, who "had rigid ideas about what was socially acceptable," ideas, moreover, that were alien to her own experience. "I'm ashamed to say," she wrote, "that I was still living pretty wild."
Indeed, in what had become a widening vicious cycle, Gibson would come home late (sometimes the next day) and her father, a garage attendant, would beat her. The next time, to avoid her father's wrath, she would stay away even longer and he would beat her that much more.
But Gibson saw her father as merely a stern disciplinarian, not abusive. She even indulged him when he sought to turn her into a boxer but quickly abandoned the effort.
Gibson made a lifelong friendship when she approached her idol, the champion fighter Sugar Ray Robinson, in a bowling alley. Sympathetic to her dream of a career in music, he bought her a saxophone.
Finally, to escape her father's wrath, she sought refuge in a Catholic home for girls and eventually received a welfare grant to get her own apartment while she worked at a succession of menial jobs.
Under the guidance of her new friends at the Cosmopolitan club she was soon defeating virtually everybody she played, winning her first tournament in 1942, the New York State girls championship sponsored by the American Tennis Association, which had been organized in 1916 by black players as an alternative to the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
Although she lost the A.T.A. finals later that year, Gibson continued to improve, so much so that in 1946, when she lost in the final of her first A.T.A. women's championship, she caught the eye of two men who would change her life and alter the course of tennis, Dr. Hubert A. Eaton of Wilmington, N.C., and Dr. R. Walter (Whirlwind) Johnson of Lynchburg, Va.
The two physicians, leaders of a cadre of black enthusiasts determined to crack the racial barriers of mainstream tennis, saw Gibson's potential and became her sponsors in both life and tennis. They arranged that Gibson would live with Dr. Eaton and his wife during the school year, practicing on his court and attending high school, and spend the summer traveling on the tennis circuit with Dr. Johnson, who would later perform a similar service for Arthur Ashe.
Gibson, whose table manners were so atrocious when she first arrived in Wilmington that the Eatons made her eat in the kitchen, blossomed in the refined environment..