Before there was Naomi Osaka, before there were Venus Williams and Serena Williams, before there was Zina Garrison, there was Althea Gibson.
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Gibson was granted entry into the exclusive, lily-white world of American tennis. You see, while Gibson was dominant in American Tennis Association tournaments — the African American answer to the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association — winning junior national titles at 17 and 18 years old and then 10 straight women's national championships, she was effectively barred from competing at the United States National Championships (now the U.S. Open) for years.
It wasn't that the National Championships themselves were segregated, at least on paper: USTA rules banned racial or ethnic discrimination. But to get to the Championships, you had to accumulate points through tournaments held almost exclusively at whites-only tennis clubs.
It was only after four-time U.S. and one-time Wimbledon champion Alice Marble wrote an editorial for the July 1, 1950, edition of American Lawn Tennis Magazine sharply decrying the racism in the sport that Gibson received an invitation to play in that year's National Championships.
"I think it's time we faced a few facts," Marble wrote. "If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If there is anything left in the name of sportsmanship, it's more than time to display what it means to us. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts, where tennis is played. ...
"She is not being judged by the yardstick of ability but by the fact that her pigmentation is somewhat different."
In that first U.S. Nationals, Gibson won her first-round match but lost her second to reigning Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. It was a three-set thriller, and despite hearing racist taunts from the stands, Gibson led 7-6 in the final set and was a game from victory when the match was paused by a terrible thunderstorm. When it resumed the next day, Brough won the third set, 9-7.
Gibson became the first African American to play at Wimbledon in 1951, advancing to the third round.
Tall (5-foot-11) and powerful thanks to a childhood spent learning boxing from her father playing wooden paddle tennis in the street outside her family's home in Harlem — Time Magazine said she used "hard, unladylike strokes" in a 1956 profile — Gibson made history in 1956 when she became the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open. She also won the doubles title that year with Briton Angela Buxton, with the two forming a bond over the discrimination they faced; Buxton was Jewish and there were attempts to keep her out of tournaments as well because of her religion.
In 1957, Gibson won the singles titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and she repeated the feat in 1958, giving her five Grand Slam crowns for her career. After her first Wimbledon championship, she received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, another first for an African American. She rose to the world No. 1 ranking.
"For me, she was the most important pioneer for tennis. She was Black, she looked like me and she opened up so many doors," Serena Williams told WTATennis.com last year.
While she excelled on the court, Gibson dealt with now-familiar Jim Crow discrimination off it: times when she wasn't allowed to use a bathroom or locker room because of her race, or turned away from restaurants, or wasn't allowed to stay in a hotel and was forced to sleep in her car.
Through all of that success, though, Gibson never made much money. There wasn't prize money back then, and Associated Press Female Player of the Year awards and magazine covers don't pay bills. Almost incredibly, Gibson would eventually turn to another wealthy, white sport that worked hard to keep people like her out: golf.
She became the first African American player on the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1964, winning some money, but again, there wasn't a lot to win. By the 1970s, Gibson had become a touring tennis teacher. One of her students was Garrison, who in 1990 became the first Black woman since Gibson to advance to the U.S. Open singles final.
For all of her achievements, battles won and trophies raised, Gibson wasn't really seen and appreciated for her trailblazing until late in her life and after it. A bronze statue of Gibson was installed at Flushing Meadows, home of the U.S. Open, in 2019.
"What people have to understand is how she persevered and what she means to our sport," Billie Jean King said last year. "If people really learn her story, believe me, it will inspire them to do great things with their lives."