Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson
By Ashley Brown
(Oxford University Press, 595 pages, $29.95)
Iga Świątek, WTA top-ranked tennis player, and Aryna Sabalenka, right behind her at No. 2. battled it out for the prize at the Madrid Open, a fancy venue as top tennis tournaments go. I guess it was worth the price of the ticket to those who got them, but you can wonder.
Although both ATA and WTA stage 1000-level draws, just below the majors of the Slam circuit, there is something of a less-than-class feel about the place, which you would not say, for instance, of such 1000s as the Italian Open, which comes up next, or such neo-classics as the Indian Wells and Miami Opens that combine to bring sunshine to winter in the U.S.
She was probably the most famous woman in American sports, in a time when the media did not pay much attention to women in sports or to success in general by non-white Americans.
In a free-enterprise, anti-communist paper like TAS, Mr. Pleszczynski advises me, it would be churlish to blame the purses, which are mind-boggling at all these tournaments. The Madrid Open put on a display of decorative ball girls dressed like bimbos cute, but what was their function? I had the impression from far away televisual watching — never reliable, I allow — they stood near the players’ benches, with sun-shielding umbrellas while the real ball girls (and boys) did their jobs for peon wages. But what message does this send tennis fans about the manly manliness of the male players? Ulysses, they had him tied to the mast at this sort of moment, but these guys have stronger nerves and can keep their focus on the job.
At any rate, Spanish phenom and defending U.S. Open champion Carlos Alcaraz held off a great charge by non-seed Jan-Lennard Struff, and made it Madrid bis, in three hard sets. And it was toe to toe between Miss Iga and Miss Aryana, who went the three set distance as well. In doubles Misses Jennifer Pegula and Coco Gauff made it to the finals, but in the men’s doubles our side was absent, though an Anglosphere team of Aussie Matthew Ebden and veteran Indian star Rohan Bopanna went down in three to a power-Russian team — you are not supposed to pronounce the word Russian at these tournaments but everyone knows Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov are Muscovites.
They all made good money. A few years ago no girl, nor any boy either, thought you could win half a million dollars playing tennis for a couple hours. And, note, losing. The other girl, or boy, got twice that much.
Sports is big business, an old story; but the flow of money still impresses, especially after reading Ashley Brown’s new biography of Althea Gibson, who helped ignite the sports boom.
Notwithstanding a tendency to ascribe to the past faults for attitudes that today we might find irrelevant — for example, sportswriters, including black sportswriters, criticizing Althea for being too aggressive, or “tomboyish,” Prof. Brown shows how Althea became an instrument in others’ purposes. This may be the fate of most stars, upon whom people project their own wishes. However, Althea Gibson had her own ideas about that, and the contradiction that resulted — playing the game others wanted her to play because it allowed her, she thought, to play hers — hurt her: they got what they wanted, for the most part, but did she? No more than Mary Wells or Zora Neale Hurston. That is the story.
Growing up, Althea Gibson was the best street ball player in the neighborhood. Stickball, handball, paddleball — New York City 14-and under champ in that sport — basketball — whatever the game, she was the first on and the last off the street, steps, wall, sand lot, playground, and she was the fastest, quickest, leading point maker. Girl or boy, it you went up against Althea, you had better be ready to play your best or take a beating. Including the literal kind, because Althea did not shirk from defending herself and her three young siblings against neighborhood bullies.
Police Athletic League big brothers saw to it she played in the neighborhood teams and got instruction, though they noticed early on that she picked up the right habits on her own by studying what the bigger, older, more advanced kids did. She was what you call a natural, and by the time she was old enough to swing a tennis racquet she had caught the attention of Osborne Walker, a celebrated orchestra leader, and his wife, Waltrine Hawkins. The Walkers brought her into the Cosmopolitan Club, the top of the line colored tennis club in New York and a major center of strivers, race improvers. The membership included successful people in every field, and in Althea they saw something they liked.
She would follow Jackie Robinson, erase the color line in tennis. She began playing in tournaments, first in New York, and then Newark, New Haven, then outside the region, as far as Chicago, on the ATA circuit, American Tennis Association, because the USTA did not invite colored players.
ATA folks gritted their teeth, bit their tongues, made polite requests, and prepared to wait some more. They knew the chance would come, and they knew that seeing a tall lithe superbly athletic girl properly attired and minding her manners winning against whoever they put up against her would do something to people’s heads — white people’s heads in particular, but black ones too, and … other doors would open.
Althea was a good fit for the program because she really did like tennis and she knew how good she was at it. However, she insisted she was not interested in being a trailblazer for civil rights and racial integration like Jackie Robinson. She said her success, when it came, should and would be good for “others of my race.” She meant equality — the opportunity to compete in high-level tournaments — was something you earned, but the opportunity should not be denied due to race.
She was explicit on achieving a more comfortable standard of living. The family had come to New York from South Carolina when Althea was a small child, and her father and mother, however much they worked, never rose very far above the poverty line. But the collateral earnings other amateurs received did not come her way, and she knew this was related to racial feelings, and was not averse to saying so.
Prof. Brown’s insistence on chronicling the bitter-sweet narrative of Althea Gibson’s life in meticulous and unsparing detail has the effect of demonstrating how the unfairness of life does not necessarily disappear with progress toward fairness in life. Prof. Brown’s book thus is not only a fine study of race in American sports, but perhaps more significantly today, about the trade-off between “fairness” — mistranslated these days as “equity” — and opportunity.
Althea Gibson quickly established her court creds at the Cosmopolitan and soon she was recognized as the best female tennis player on the ATA circuit, and, truth be told, she was better than the men on that circuit too. She was a fairly tall girl at five ten, slim, strong, and fast. She was not a great beauty but she was pretty — attractive, engaging.
She was excellent at all sports, including basketball (which she liked better than tennis), but her mentors, including such coaches as the Cosmopolitan’s Fred Johnson, and later on Dr. Walter Johnson and Dr. Hubert Eaton, two legendary advocates and trainers of young (black) champions as well as Sydney Llewellyn, whom she would eventually marry, were fixated on her making it in the tennis world. It would be good for the race: a standout star in a classy sport.
The USTA was not keen on inviting exotics to their big tournaments, or for that matter to any tournaments. This was normal in the late ’40s, early ’50s. Even ten years later the best teenage player in the country, Arthur Ashe, was being disinvited at meets in his home state of Virginia. But the white wall had fissures in it amongst its own elite, and in 1950, Alice Marble, one of the top stars of American tennis, wrote an open letter saying not inviting Althea Gibson to the U.S. Nationals was a scandal. The USTA cracked forthwith; and after a couple years of losing in early rounds and another year or two of near-misses in the late rounds, Althea Gibson was national champion of both the USTA and the ATA.
The French Open, then Wimbledon, followed, and she made successful defenses of both. By now it was 1958, and the problem was that she was not making much money. She had won nearly sixty titles, singles and doubles combined, and was probably the most famous woman in American sports, in a time when the media did not pay much attention to women in sports or to success in general by non-white Americans. So despite her relative fame, she did not get the sponsors and complimentary fees amateurs depended on, since tournaments had no purses. She was lucky when her expenses were paid, as for example when the ATA and Jackie Robinson covered her first trip to England, or when she earned a fee of a few hundred dollars for playing in a charity tournament.
Mind, this was not a racial issue, though race obviously complicated it. Vic Seixas, Pancho Gonzales, were two of the best American players of the era and they could not survive on the amateur circuit. Gonzales, whom many observers consider the greatest American player of all time unless they favor Don Budge, turned pro and made some money when Jack Kramer pioneered the pro tour, then he returned to the circuit in the early years of the Open era, when he was in his 40s. In the end he depended on the benevolence of relatives, many of whom he had by all accounts offended. Seixas, who is still alive at nearly 100, is living on the informal crowd funding of the tennis world, outside of which he is forgotten though he was one of the faces of American sports in the 1950s.
Althea tried the ladies professional golf circuit in the 1960s; the chapter Prof. Brown devotes to this episode is remarkable: a woman in her 30s, 40s, turns herself into a pro in a sport she scarcely knew and very nearly makes a success of it. But it was too late this time, in contrast to the tennis years, her extraordinary athleticism was not enough to get her to the top. She placed well but did not win.
In the 1970s and ’80s more girls than ever were in organized sports. The sports establishment remembered from time to time to thank her for her “role” in these developments, but no one inquired as to what she might want or need, in terms of post–sports star life. John Ford gave her a supporting role in a movie with John Wayne and William Holden, and Ed Sullivan helped with her fledging singing career, which never took off. With her looks and the mimicry and movement skills you need in sports, she would have done well in the movies, but she was ahead of her time there, too.
The State Department made use of her as the face of American progress on civil rights, sending her on tours as a goodwill ambassador. By then the push for honoring the promise of America in practice as well as in spirit was irresistible, and it was never clear just what the State’s PR folks thought they needed to do that ordinary news reports were not doing. However, if it got Althea Gibson some international exposure and some new friends overseas, which it did, the tours were worth it; she thought so at any rate and did not rise to baits that she was being used to counter communist propaganda about America’s ineradicable racism.
She wanted to be recognized as the best tennis player of her generation, and, grudgingly or wholeheartedly, she was, at least for a few years. She died in relative poverty in 2003, her old friend and doubles partner Angela Buxton having raised funds for her health care. Angela Buxton, it is worth noting, was snubbed by Wimbledon despite winning twice there with Althea, on account of being Jewish.
It was not just racism and anti-Semitism. Fred Perry was treated the same way as Althea and Angela (they were denied the All-England Lawn Tennis Club memberships that normally winners at Wimbledon receive), because he was working class. Sports is not exactly a mirror of society, but it travels along with it.
About ten years after her death, the USTA showed its commitment to racial justice by unveiling a statue of Althea Gibson on the grounds of the Billie Jean King Center at Flushing Meadows. Prof. Brown notes obliquely and with admirable discretion that they did consider, though how seriously one may wonder, renaming Ashe Stadium Ashe-Gibson, or perhaps naming a new stadium for her when they did the billion dollar renovation. That, as Gillian Welch noted — or was it John Prine? — is the way it goes.