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It's about time!

Gibson finally gets recognition for pioneering legacy

Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2007 12:48AM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 10:01AM
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Billie Jean King was one of the many tennis dignitaries present for Althea Gibson's posthumous anniversary tribute Monday.
Billie Jean King was one of the many tennis dignitaries present for Althea Gibson's posthumous anniversary tribute Monday.
AP

NEW YORK -- At a tennis facility named for the woman who triumphed over sexism, inside a stadium named for the man who beat racism, the woman who made both victories possible finally got her due.

It was 50 years ago Saturday when Althea Gibson became the first black player, male or female, to win the U.S. National Championships -- the precursor to the U.S. Open, which formally kicked off Monday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Arthur Ashe Court. Given the USTA's habit for honoring itself and the players it made famous -- never the other way around -- one wonders what took them so long to get around to Gibson. The celebration itself lasted about 30 minutes and featured the standard clichés: a gospel choir (this one clad in white), a high school drum line and plenty of shots of the relatively few black revelers peppered among the crowd.

Emcee Phylicia Rashad headlined an impressive delegation of 20 black women who, like Gibson, were trailblazers in their field: Mae Jamison, the first black woman to visit space; Carol Mosley Braun, the first black woman to become a U.S. Senator; and Aretha Franklin, likely the first person to get made up before a post-performance news conference with mostly print reporters.

While Braun, Jameson, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Rachel Robinson (baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson's widow) and others stood together in smiley silence while mayors Michael Bloomberg and David Dinkins submitted sleepy orations and Franklin led the crowd in a sing-a-long of Respect, visions of Jackie Robinson played on the big screen overhead. Robinson is always the person with whom Gibson is most often compared. And, while it's true both were the first to break the color barrier in their respective sports, they endured the same struggle in very different ways. Robinson, though hesitant initially, eventually came to embrace his status as a trailblazer.

Gibson was more inclined to see herself as a pioneer. Standing 5-foot-11 and possessing a powerful serve, she was a rarity in the sport. As a singles and doubles player, she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, capturing her first -- the '56 French Open -- at the relatively ripe age of 23.

Much of the racism Robinson endured was overt, but he at least had the support of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and the strength of his teammates to lean on. Gibson had to weather the more covert slings and arrows of institutional racism all by herself. She was denied rooms at the hotels; one even refused to book reservations for a dinner in her honor.

Not that all the insults were implicit. When Gibson walked onto the court at Forest Hills to defend her U.S. crown in 1958, a banner in the stands caught her eye: GO BACK TO THE COTTEN PLANTATION NIGGER. But it was the spelling, not the slight, that took Gibson aback. "Someone can't spell 'cotton,'" she whispered to her opponent.

But most significantly, baseball has remembered Robinson, while tennis has treated Gibson like a taboo figure instead of a treasured one. Whereas Robinson's No. 42 hangs in every major league ballpark, before tonight, you would have been hard-pressed to find much to celebrate Gibson's stint in the sport. But now? Her likeness adorns a commemorative coin that will be used in match coin flips, is featured in a special exhibit honoring the accomplishments of the sport's black players inside Louis Armstrong and is cast on a bronze plaque that was inducted into the Billie King National Tennis Center's Court of Champions.

Robinson's legacy, meanwhile, lives on through the legions of black and Afro-Latino ballplayers that would follow in his footsteps. Gibson's legacy, which includes 56 wins and five Grand Slam singles titles and pretty much ended with her death in 2003, did not lead to an influx of black women. More than 40 years passed before another, Serena Williams, won the U.S. Open, in 1999 -- and some of the same trials still endure. Just last month at the Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami, one of Serena's matches was repeatedly disrupted by a male spectator, who before each serve called out: "Hit the net like any negro would!" (The fan was later ejected.)

Williams, who boasts credits on Law & Order and ER, talked about the possibility of producing a film about Gibson's life, even entertaining the idea of playing the lead role. ("I'd have to learn how to hit a solid one-handed backhand," she quipped.) When you consider Gibson was offered a role as a slave after winning Wimbledon in 1957, it gives you an idea of how far we've come. And how much further we still have to go.

"It was definitely a tough act to follow," Venus Williams said after her ensuing 6-2, 6-1 victory over Kyra Nagy that came on the heels of the festivities. "I got to be part of the story, too, and it was really moving."

In the end, 14-year-old Brittany Hankerson may have struck the night's most fulsome note in a mostly insincere production. Her stirring rendition of the national anthem was punctuated by the color guard's unfurling of the flag over center court and the blast of fireworks. Later, as a hail of ash fell onto Ashe, sending soldiers and celebrities scattering and a cloud of smoke settled over the stadium, I couldn't help but wonder: All of her hard work reduced to this?

HAVING A BALL

It won't draw nearly the same interest as Barry Bonds' 756th home run, but Jax Taylor landed himself a nice keepsake at the U.S. Open on Monday. The 9-year-old from Richmond, Va., was the first customer at this year's tournament to grab a wayward tennis ball hit into the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The bounty came off the racquet of No.3-seed Jelena Jankovic in the first game of her straight-set win over Slovakian Jarmila Gajdosova. "He didn't catch a ball at the Mets game last night, so this is a pretty good souvenir," said his mother Mary Fisk-Taylor. Young Jax, a fourth-grader at St. Edward Epiphany School, plans to keep the Wilson 1 ball next to a baseball signed by his athletic hero, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. -- Richard Deitsch

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