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A UNIQUELY DIFFICULT ROAD TO FAME
Over in London they were quoting Althea Gibson at 2 to 1 to win at Wimbledon this week. It seems hard to believe, even after her stunning record this past winter and spring on the international tennis circuit: 16 victories in 18 tournaments, 11 straight, including decisive defeats of the world's two top-ranked women players, Louise Brough and Shirley Fry. But win or lose, there is no question about Althea's being the most interesting player at Wimbledon this year, because she has traveled a uniquely difficult road.
Few people know how really difficult a road it was. Althea Gibson is not a girl who confides easily. Her crises over the years have been many, and they have largely been crises of self-confidence. As recently as last summer, for example, she would have batted any thought of being the favorite at Wimbledon right off the court. Last summer, in fact, Althea was ready to quit tennis for good.
"During the Eastern grass court tournament," says her old friend and teacher Sarah Palfrey Danzig, "I sat with her under the trees at the South Orange Lawn Tennis Club as she drank a chocolate milk, and we had a serious discussion. She explained that she was already in her late 20s and had her future to consider. She didn't think she had many more years of tennis ahead, and felt she should be planning now for a secure means of livelihood.
"For five years she hadn't lived up to expectations or improved the way people thought she could. She had twice been ranked among the first 10 women players of the country but never near the top. She felt she was at the crossroads. Should she continue her tennis or turn to something else?"
That question has been on Althea Gibson's mind through all the years, and small wonder. For if ever anyone started at the bottom and with the score at 0-40, it was this lanky, dark, courageous girl from Harlem who carried, along with her own ambitions, the burden of her race upon her shoulders.
She didn't even want to play tennis, really. She was a basketball fan, and good at the game. But her natural aptitude for tennis was such that she practically had to play. And once she started, it was soon clear that she would have to go beyond the restrictive limits of the Negro American Tennis Association and burst into the big time.
How that was accomplished is a story that has never before been told in full detail.
The color line was already breaking down in tennis by 1950, but its abolition never could become official until a Negro played in the top tennis event of the year—the National grass court championships at Forest Hills. Dr. Reginald Weir, a veteran player, had already been accepted into the National Indoor Championships. Althea had reached this stage, too, playing her first indoor championship in the winter of 1950, when she lost to Nancy Chaffee in the finals.
It was during the indoor Nationals that negotiations began between representatives of the American Tennis Association (Dr. Sylvester B. Smith; Bertram L. Baker, executive secretary of the ATA; and Arthur E. Francis, assistant executive secretary) and representatives of the USLTA (Dr. Ellsworth Davenport and Alrick Man Jr., the chairman of the tournament committee). Negotiations were conducted so quietly that neither press nor public learned about them until mid summer, when the news that a member of the Negro race would compete in the Nationals for the first time made headlines around the world.