How Althea Gibson made the sport more diverse

An August 28, 1950, something historic happened in “white sport”, as tennis was called for a long time. On the grounds of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, where the US Open was held for many years until the move to New York, people jostled to get to the remote 14th and marvel. The audience was not attracted by the Briton Barbara Knapp, who looked and played like other women of the time, but the exotic from the other side.

Thomas Klemm

Editor in the “Money & More” section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Her name was Althea Gibson, she was 23 years old and brisk. But the sensation was her skin color. Gibson was the first black who was not only allowed to play in tournaments among their peers, but also among the well-off on the big stage. “The tall black woman with spider-like arms and legs and an unfathomable smile”, as Bruce Schoenfeld writes in his biography “Althea Gibson”, which has just been published in German, made it out of Harlem. And the white sport had suddenly become more diverse.

What was an attraction in the United States 70 years ago at the time of racial segregation is everyday life today. The winners of the most important tennis tournaments of the past twenty years are more diverse than ever: First the Williams sisters Serena and Venus dominated, then Sloane Stephens, Li Na, Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and most recently Emma Raducanu triumphs in the Grand Slam -Competitions celebrated. So young women with an Afro-American or Asian background or, like the Australian Barty, with Aboriginal roots.

Vagabond as a pioneer

Althea Gibson, born in 1927 and died in 2003, is considered a pioneer. She said of herself: “I am the greatest.” But when it came down to it on the pitch, the American fell short of expectations for years. She played inconsistently, and strokes of profit were followed by careless mistakes. She was always improvising: “She was a vagabond, carried her life around with her in a suitcase and was constantly aware that the carousel on which she was driving could stop at any time,” writes Schoenfeld.



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