A Lesson on How to Compete From Althea Gibson

Born August 25, 1927, Althea Gibson was the first Black American to play tennis at the U.S. Open (1950) and at Wimbledon (1951).

Althea was known as a wayward child, playing hooky, riding the subways back and forth and walking the streets of Harlem, New York where her family moved to from Silver, South Carolina. She knew that she was different, and talented and had a need to prove that not to herself, but to everybody else. She always wanted to be somebody.

Althea's friend Buddy Walker set the ball in motion, giving Althea her first tennis racket after seeing her play paddle ball and introduced her to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. It was there, Althea met Fred Johnson, the teaching pro at the club, who taught Althea the service toss that aided her in her first match at Wimbledon in 1951, and that later became one of Althea's signature moves.

“I made a vow to myself: Althea, you're not going to look around. You're not going to listen to any calls or remarks. I didn't acknowledge the referee's calls. I won the first set six-love. Then I looked around at the spectators as if to say, 'How do you like that?' Then I lost my concentration.”

Althea continued to improve her game and became the Black champion of the American Tennis Association for more than ten consecutive years, at which point she felt she was ready to take her competing to the next level. She was now coming back to the courts with the best serve, the best overhand and the best volley in all of women's tennis.

“You got to know your opponent. You got to know their strengths, their weaknesses, see how they move, what...they don't like. Once I know this, they only see...their weak points, not their strengths.”

Althea was a ninja on the court; knocking down balls, her competitors and color barriers in the midst of segregation.

“I became an attacker. If your first serve [wasn't] good, [I'd] knock it down your throat.”

Althea eventually retired to East Orange, NJ with a host of tournament wins, awards and tennis records under her belt including: the French Open, the United States Open, the Australian Doubles, Female Athlete of the Year and New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics, to name only a few. In 1958 she wrote an autobiography, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody” and died in September 28, 2003 of complications from cancer.


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