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Trailblazer
Chris Ballard
October 06, 2003
Died
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October 06, 2003

Trailblazer

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Died

Of respiratory failure, Althea Gibson, 76, the first black woman to win Wimbledon and a U.S. national tennis title. Gibson also became the first of her race on the LPGA tour, in 1963. Raised in Harlem, Gibson was a 12-year-old city paddle-tennis champ before switching to a racket and winning her first tennis tournament at 14. She became the first African-American to compete at the U.S. nationals in 1950 and at Wimbledon the next year. (Boxer Joe Louis paid for her plane ticket to London.) Lithe, powerful and raw—in 1956 SI wrote, "She moves rangily around the court like a slightly awkward panther"—Gibson had a huge serve and, at 5'11", extraordinary reach. Six-time Wimbledon winner Billie Jean King recalled that when she was 13 and first saw Gibson play, "My heart was pounding.... I thought, Geez, I hope I can play like that someday."

Gibson, who was frustrated by her inconsistency against top players, won the first of back-to-back Wimbledons in '57. "At last! At last!" she shouted, accepting the trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. King often notes it was Gibson, not Arthur Ashe, who broke the sport's color barrier. But Gibson's success 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. ( Venus Williams was the 2000 Wimbledon champ.)

After she retired with 56 wins and five Grand Slam titles, Gibson, who married twice and had no children, tried singing (she recorded an album) and acted in a John Wayne movie. She was commissioner of athletics in New Jersey from 1975 to '77. In her 1968 memoir, So Much to Live For, Gibson wrote, "I hope that I have accomplished just one thing: that I have been a credit to tennis and my country."

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