Well before this year’s U.S. Open got underway it was clear that, regardless of who was playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium at any given time, Serena Williams would be the main event. In her quest to tie Steffi Graf with 22 majors and become the first woman since Graf in 1988 to win the Grand Slam, everyone has come down with a case of Serena Fever — she’s covering magazines, starring in inspirational commercials, and prompting the women’s final to sell out before the men’s final for the first time in U.S. Open history.
But Williams hasn’t always been so universally adored. She has faced incessant racist and sexist criticism throughout her career, about everything from her beaded braids to her biceps, her catsuit to her crip walk.
“If I get caught up looking at the negatives it could really bring you down, and I don’t have time to be brought down,” Williams told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America before the U.S. Open began. “I have too many things to do. I have Grand Slams to win and people to inspire and that’s what I’m here for.”
So while Williams is pursuing Graf, she’s also bolstering the legend of the often-forgotten tennis trailblazer who paved the way for her success: Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of tennis.
In 1950, Gibson became the first black player, female or male, to compete in the U.S. Open, which was then played at Forest Hills and called the U.S. Nationals. Six years later, she became the first woman of color to win a major championship when she won the French Open, a feat she repeated when she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in both 1957 and 1958.
Gibson was celebrated for her on-court accomplishments during her prime, earning a spot on the cover of the New York Times and even her own ticker-tape parade in 1957 after winning Wimbledon — an extremely rare honor for a female athlete. However, when she was forced to retire from tennis because the sport didn’t offer prize money at the time, the admiration quickly faded.
“I don’t think the culture was ready for Althea ever, until literally this summer when the whole vibe about Serena changed,” Rex Miller, the producer and director of the documentary Althea, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview this week.
I don’t think the culture was ready for Althea ever, until literally this summer when the whole vibe about Serena changed.
Althea, which airs Friday on PBS, tells Gibson’s story, from her childhood on the streets of Harlem to her tennis triumphs to her thoughts of suicide when she was penniless and alone in her later years.
While Miller was careful to keep the film focused on Gibson’s life, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between her journey and that of Williams; even though the latter isn’t mentioned in the film, revisiting Gibson’s legacy makes Williams’ even clearer.
“Their roots, they’re so similar,” Miller said. “Different times, different scenery, but the same obstacles. Althea might have risked her life more, the stakes were higher, but it’s the same country, we’ve just come a little bit farther. They’re both dealing with not only tennis being a white world, but society.”
Gibson was born to sharecropper parents on a South Carolina cotton farm in 1927, and grew up in Harlem, where her competitiveness was honed through street games — if you didn’t win, you didn’t get to play, so Gibson learned to win quickly. In the documentary, her practice partner Bob Davis said that her rough upbringing made her “instinctively aggressive.”
Her father had wanted Althea to be a boy, so raised her as such, even taking her up to the rooftops where the two would physically fight.
As her tennis talent began to develop — first through games on a paddle tennis court in front of her stoop on 143rd Street, and later at the bourgeois Cosmopolitan Tennis Club a few blocks away — her father felt that if Gibson could hold her own against him in a fight, surviving the white-washed world of tennis would be a breeze.
While Richard Williams never had fistfights with his daughters, he had a similar mentality about choosing to raise Serena and Venus in Compton, California, where they would often have to pause practices and fall to the ground when gunfire rang out.
“[The streets of Compton] would make them tough, give them a fighter’s mentality,” Richard wrote in his autobiography, as reported by Jay Busbee of Yahoo. “They’d be used to combat. And how much easier would it be to play in front of thousands of white people if they had already learned to play in front of scores of armed gang members?”
The toughness that was instilled early served both women well, on and off the court.
Though Gibson did receive help along the way, particularly from Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Robert W. Johnson, two African American physicians who helped her get an education and learn the country club rules of tennis, she had an immensely challenging road to the top of the game. In a world where lynchings were still prevalent, she often had to sleep in cars when tournament hotels wouldn’t allow her to stay, and put up with incessant racial slurs and harsh conjecture about her body type. In fact, she was even subjected to a chromosome test to prove that she was a woman.
After her playing career came to an end, Gibson recorded a jazz album, sang on the Ed Sullivan show, broke the color barrier in women’s golf, acted in a John Wayne film, and performed with the Harlem Globetrotters, but was still considered an outsider and lacked allies within the tennis community. Her opportunities for sponsorship were limited, and when pro tennis was launched in 1968 and she attempted to make a comeback, she was relegated to qualification tournaments where there was no money guaranteed, despite owning a combined 11 major titles in singles in doubles.
Gibson was completely broke later in her life and contemplated suicide, before her friend and former doubles partner Angela Buxton took her story public and enlisted the tennis world to come to Gibson’s rescue, collecting donations that totaled nearly a million dollars.
These days, Williams can get into any hotel she wants, but she continues to face rampant racism. In 2001, she began a 13-year boycott of the Indian Wells tennis tournament when racial slurs were hurled at her during the final; despite owning 16 more major singles titles and an 18–2 advantage in the head-to-head, Williams still doesn’t receive as much sponsorship money as Maria Sharapova; and Williams has faced the same criticism that Gibson did about her body type — just last year, the president of the Russian tennis federation referred to Venus and Serena as the “Williams brothers.”
And as Miller mentioned, only this summer, as Williams has been chasing the can’t-ignore-this kind of history, has she begun to receive the mainstream appreciation and adoration that she has so long deserved.
Of course, Miller had no idea when he began making this film five years ago that it would coincide with Williams’ quest in such a concrete way. The inspiration came from discovering a picture in storage that had hung on his childhood bedroom wall. It showed two dark-skinned women on the grass courts of the Merion Cricket Club outside of Philadelphia, where they were playing a tennis tournament despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to be members of the club.
One of the women was Gibson, the other was Miller’s mother, Millicent Miller, who won only one game against Gibson, but always regaled her friends and family with the story of their match.
Upon rediscovering the photo, Miller immediately began researching Gibson, and by the end of the day was so enamored that he was determined to bring her story to light.
“My goal for the film was all about Althea; we wanted to bring her back to iconic status,” Miller said. “But she and Serena are sort of wonderfully linked.”
Indeed they are. In 1999, Williams became only the second black woman to win the U.S. Open after Gibson first achieved the feat in 1957, and she and her sister are still the only other two female African American major champions.
Althea makes me happy and excited to be black.
While Williams never met Gibson, who passed away in 2003, she has always been familiar with Gibson’s place in tennis history, even faxing her questions for a school project back in 1997.
“I read a lot of books about Althea. I’ve always dreamt of being on the same level as her,” Williams said back at the 2007 U.S. Open. “I just really, really am glad I have an opportunity to be able to play… Althea makes me happy and excited to be black.”
In so many ways, Williams’ story began when Gibson first stepped onto the courts at the U.S. Nationals in 1950, so it only makes sense to celebrate Gibson’s legacy as we watch Williams chase after Graf’s accomplishments in Flushing Meadows.
And if Williams is able to make history at this U.S. Open, let’s remember to honor her properly — perhaps even with a ticker-tape parade of her own.