In 1950 Althea Gibson became the first black athlete, male or female, to play in the United States Open tennis championship. When she won the women’s tennis singles title at Wimbledon in England seven years later, she was once again the first black to do so. To win the Wimbledon title, Gibson not only had to beat her opponents, but also she had to withstand hostile comments from the audience.
For black athletes before the advent of civil rights, the expected strains of competition—injury, fatigue, formidable opposition—were compounded by a climate of prejudice. It was through extraordinary determination that in 1957 Althea Gibson became the first black person, male or female, to win the Wimbledon World Tennis Championship in London, England.
In 1950, at the age of 22, she became the first black person to play at the U.S. National Championships, nearly beating Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. In 1951 she made her first appearance at Wimbledon, becoming the first black person to play at the British Championship.
Over the next three years Gibson lost more than she won against the circuit’s top women players. She nearly gave up the game in 1955 but was persuaded by the U.S. State Department to participate in a goodwill tennis tour of Southeast Asia and Europe the following year. The tour proved to be a turnaround for her career—of 18 tournaments, Gibson won 16, including the 1956 French Championships, making her the first black person to win the title. She returned to Wimbledon that same year, but lost in the quarterfinals to Shirley Fry.
At Wimbledon the following year, Gibson, then 30, knew it was one of her last opportunities to take the title. Like Jackie Robinson, who had endured heckling in his early appearances with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson withstood harsh commentary from both the crowd and the press during early tournament play. In newspaper reports her serious concentration was labeled sullen, and her limited remarks were called irritable and impolite. Finally a group of sympathetic sportswriters persuaded colleagues to treat Gibson more fairly. Her reserve, they argued, was armor against the pressure of being the first black person to be in contention for the Wimbledon title.
On July 6 at Wimbledon she endured not only the oppressive heat—the temperature reached 35.5° C (96° F) in the shade—but also bigoted remarks from intolerant tennis fans. In her early games, many in the audience clapped at her mistakes. Still, Gibson maintained a steadfast intensity in each of her sets, keeping the ball in play until just the right opportunity to power in a strategic shot.
Because she was matched in the finals against fellow American Darlene Hard, a 21-year-old whom Gibson had beaten three consecutive times in the previous year, it was clear that Gibson had a shot at the title. Although Hard was known as one the finest net players in the game, Gibson countered with her own brand of aggressive net play. After a powerful serve or severe ground shot, Gibson rushed the net to counter Hard’s volleys. Hard found it difficult to make an offensive shot, and within 25 minutes the first set was over, 6-3.
Gibson accelerated the game in the second set with a series of powerful serves. Though Hard tried to counter with several assaults at the net, Gibson easily returned. She so powerfully struck back Hard’s backhands that the young opponent could do little more than lob the ball back. Shaking her head in frustration throughout the set, Hard lost her chance at winning the Wimbledon title in less than 50 minutes, with a final score of 6-2. The crowd responded by giving Gibson a standing ovation.
After the match Gibson and Hard walked together to meet the Queen, and Hard kissed Gibson on the cheek after she received the Wimbledon Trophy. The New York Times quoted a humble Gibson as saying, “Getting my first volleys after my serves gave me plenty of confidence. Otherwise, I didn’t think I was playing that well.” When Queen Elizabeth presented Gibson with the trophy, the champion cried, “At last! At last!” as much in reference to the end of a trying tournament as to her many years of playing. Upon her return to New York, Gibson was honored with a ticker-tape parade.