Zina Garrison, the first black American woman to reach a major final in 32 years, was sitting in the Wimbledon locker room in 1990 before the biggest match of her life when there was a small commotion. As the great Martina Navratilova prepared to welcome Garrison into her Centre Court lair, Althea Gibson appeared with a bottle of champagne and a face filled with glee. It did not exactly help the nerves: “I was actually really fine until she walked in and then the nerves took over,” said Garrison, laughing, in an interview last year. “The reason why: she was saying, ‘This is where I had my champagne when I won’ and right before I had to play. I [had to be] respectful but I wanted to say ’I don’t wanna hear that right now!”
Gibson’s glee was more than understandable, for it was she who had been waiting for that moment across all of 32 years. Over three decades earlier, for a fleeting, magical few years Gibson was the best player of her time. In 1956 she became the first black player to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open and it would begin a run of dominance no different from many more celebrated greats. Over the next three years she reached seven major singles finals in eight attempts, winning two Wimbledon and two US Open crowns. She was named AP athlete of the year in both 1957 and 1958 and she returned home after her first Wimbledon triumph to a crowd of 100,000.
Gibson's story is miraculous in the midst of suffocating racism and segregation. After being born to sharecroppers on a cotton farm in 1927, her birthplace a legacy of slavery, she and her family moved to Harlem during the Great Migration in 1930 when she was around 3. When she showed promise in tournaments hosted by the American Tennis Association, the tour for African American players, segregation was her ceiling. Her talent was clear yet she was shut out from the United States National Championships (the US Open) since most of its qualifying tournaments were held at 'whites-only' clubs. It took an open letter from former champion Alice Marble, which shamed the authorities, for her to finally be able to contest the biggest sport in the United States.
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Althea Gibson: A pioneer whose legacy has only progressed
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Gibson was so far ahead of her time but when the tennis world caught up with her, what was notable was that she was always there on the periphery supporting her successors, sharing part of their success and watching the work she started so long ago progress. She played doubles with Arthur Ashe in 1973 when he was 30 and she was 46. She was present there in that Wimbledon 1990 locker room when Garrison was preparing for her final against Navratilova.
A few years later, her former doubles partner and close friend Angela Buxton was watching two supremely talented black teenagers named Venus and Serena Williams play tennis in their yard when she decided to call Gibson. A shy, excited Venus, soon to be the second black woman to win Wimbledon, connected with the first. Serena, for her part, would later do a school project on Gibson. They spoke again a few years later in 1997, just before Venus' US Open debut, which she marked with a supreme run to the final aged 17. According to the book The Match: Althea Gibson and a Portrait of a Friendship by Bruce Schoenfeld, Gibson marked their conversation with firm words of encouragement: "Be who you are and let your racket do the talking," she said. "The crowd will love you."
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Before the 2000 Wimbledon final, Gibson called Zina Garrison with more technical advice for Venus - move your feet, bend your knees. Garrison, perhaps remembering the pressure of the decade earlier, decided to wait until the end of the match to deliver the message until after Williams and had won the match. Still, it fortified the link between the generations and demonstrated how seriously Gibson took her role as pioneer, even from a distance.
The final decade of Gibson’s life was tough. As time passed, her extraordinary successes faded from view and so did she. By the mid-90s, she was sick with barely a penny to pay the bills despite all her success. A call to Marble in which Gibson described her suicidal thoughts led Marble to mobilise the tennis world, which provided financial support after years of ignoring her.
In Gibson's final year, she watched as the sport that had denied her presence in its premier events came to be dominated by two black women as Venus and Serena Williams traded the number one ranking and faced each other in consecutive Grand Slam finals. Her legacy has only progressed. Last year’s US Open saw nine black and mixed-race female players, a record, and today eight black players occupy the women’s top 100, many of whom unapologetically command their voices, speak out against racism and have already inspired young fans of the next generations.
In the book Venus Envy, Jon Wertheim noted that upon being joined by Venus as a second black honorary member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in 2000, Gibson sat before her enormous television and raised a glass of ginger ale in triumph. Whether champagne or ginger ale, more toasts are to come.
Eurosport's ‘Trailblazers’ - a 10-part series showcasing sport’s greatest stories and heroes who inspired meaningful change - is available on eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app.
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