Althea Gibson believed that records were meant to be broken, but it took four decades for another black tennis player to catch up to her back-to-back national and international championships. She still holds the record for winning 10 consecutive singles titles in the American Tennis Association (ATA), which was founded in 1916 and is the oldest black sports organization in history.
In 1957 and 1958, Gibson won the singles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. nationals, now known as the U.S. Open. Venus Williams repeated the feat in 2000 and 2001, but no one will probably ever break Gibson's ATA record from 1947 to 1957 because she broke enough racial barriers in the elite sport of tennis to make such an effort unnecessary. These days, anyone who even shows such potential will automatically start swinging his or her racket on courts at Flushing Meadows, New York, home of the U.S. Open, or at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, where Wimbledon winners are crowned.
Nothing was automatic in Gibson's day. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the part of Gibson and her legions of supporters to help her become the Queen of Tennis, as both an amateur and professional athlete. The same type of behind-the-scenes machinations that it took for Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball when he stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field as a darker Brooklyn Dodger in 1947 came into play when Althea integrated tournament tennis by competing at the nationals in 1950 and Wimbledon in 1951. She wrote a memoir in 1958 (see NOTEWORTHY TITLES).
Renewed attention has been focused on these efforts and Gibson's triumphs since her death a year ago, on September 28, 2003, at the age of 76. Ironically, many people thought she was already dead at the time complications of respiratory and bladder infections, which came on the heels of a heart attack earlier that summer, finally killed her. She had been reclusive in her later years, preferring to inspire and be admired from afar, as age and depression took their toll. Many fans feel that Gibson had been shortchanged on admiration.
"She didn't get her due," said Billie Jean King, a tennis legend in her own right who had followed Gibson's career since she was 13 and later became a close friend. King speculates that Gibson might have been heralded to a greater extent and retained more visibility had her triumphs occurred after the debut of open tennis in 1968, when professional and amateur tennis players were permitted...