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Althea Gibson Remembered as Sports Pioneer - 2003-09-29

Althea Gibson was a pioneer who left an indelible mark on sports as she broke tennis' color barrier in the 1950s and helped pave the way for future generations of black athletes. She died Sunday at the age of 76.

Althea Gibson was the first black woman to compete at and win the Wimbledon and U.S. national tennis titles, and she was also the first black player on the Ladies Professional Golfers Association Tour. Her presence helped pave the way for later stars such as Arthur Ashe, Venus and Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods.

"She opened up the doors for black tennis players," said tennis commentator Mary Carillo. "Before Arthur did it was Althea. Althea's the one who really broke the color barrier in tennis. She was almost six feet tall, and she used every bit of her extension to hit these gorgeous serves. She had a big game designed to get her to the net."

In 1950, Gibson became the first black player to compete in the U.S. tennis championships, and she played at Wimbledon in 1951. Disappointed by her showings at major tournaments, Althea Gibson considered quitting the game and joining the Women's Army Corps.

"I had decided to go into the WACS. All I had to do was raise my hand and I would have been in the WACS, believe me," she said. "But then the State Department came and offered me a chance to visit Southeast Asia on a goodwill tour. And that led to my many victories in 1955-56."

Those victories turned her career around. She captured the Wimbledon and U.S. championships in 1957 and 1958, and also won the French Open, and three Wimbledon doubles titles (1956-58).

The eldest of five children, Gibson was raised in the Harlem section of New York City. She was a self-described "born athlete" who broke racial barriers not only in tennis but in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She even toured with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team after retiring from tennis in the late 1950s.

"Althea was a fighting spirit," said her longtime friend, Fran Gray. "She excelled because she was determined to make a mark for herself and her community."

Speaking about breaking the racial barriers, Gibson said that "tennis was a game for ladies and gentleman, and I conducted myself in that manner." Althea Gibson had been seriously ill for several years and died Sunday of complications from a severe infection and respiratory illness at the East Orange General Hospital in New Jersey.