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ALTHEA THE FIRST
Joan Bruce
July 15, 1957
Queen Elizabeth watched Gibson and Hoad massacre the opposition at Wimbledon
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July 15, 1957

Althea The First

Queen Elizabeth watched Gibson and Hoad massacre the opposition at Wimbledon

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While the British monarch—who prefers horse racing—watched, in a torrid heat which shriveled the courts, knocked out a thousand spectators and cost the athletes an average loss of weight of 10 pounds in a five-set match, Wimbledon last week elected its two crowned heads. Lew Hoad and Althea Gibson both won in a canter, as the Queen of England might like to put it, but immediately afterward tennis fans found themselves crying, "The King is dead, long live the Queen!" For King Lew abruptly abdicated his claim to the amateur throne by joining Jack Kramer's professional circus at the fattest fee ever offered a tennisman ($125,000 for two years). And Queen Althea thereby became the amateur game's leading personality.

Hers, it should be said, was not a personality which particularly appealed to Wimbledon crowds, who like their heroes to be chivalrous to a fault and noticeably human. Actually, Althea Gibson was human enough. She suffered from center-court nerves and the self-imposed responsibility of representing the whole Negro population of the United States of America.

The crowd handled her with silent respect until the semifinal, and then prepared to be partisan. Her opponent was a new star at Wimbledon, a shy, 16-year-old, statuesque, 5-foot-11 schoolgirl with amber-colored hair called Christine Truman. Christine has shown promise since she was 11 and for the last three years has been under the wing of the Lawn Tennis Association.

This was her first year at Wimbledon. She expected to get to the third round, perhaps. But at the end of the first week she electrified Wimbledon with an almost impeccable display which knocked out England's top-seeded Shirley Bloomer. Shirley is a baseline operator, a good all-round player but with no positive attacking strokes. Christine, reaching sudden tennis maturity, waded into Shirley, using a particularly zipping, probing forehand drive which had professionals comparing her with Helen Wills. The forehand was almost the only stroke of championship standard that Christine possessed. Her service was average country-club, her backhand unreliable and inclined to balloon and she frequently missed sitters when she got up to smash. Against Shirley Bloomer she had nothing to lose, and in this match brought out strokes which even she did not know she possessed. In the next round, the quarter-finals, she beat Betty Pratt, and the center court went wild. The more optimistic thought here at last was an English Little Mo. A more moderate school realized she had no chance of beating Althea Gibson but that she might put up a good show.

For the semifinals the center court was packed to its 17,000 capacity. Thirty-four thousand fingers were crossed when Truman and Gibson walked on. But this time Christine couldn't do anything right, and Gibson never let her think she could. From the beginning she crowded Truman, covering the net like a daddy longlegs. Christine's forehand drive never got into gear. She seemed to have feet of lead. Pop went Christine's service; bang went Gibson's. It was like matching kitten against leopard. The center court hadn't even the heart left to cheer its young favorite, but watched the slaughter in shuddering silence.

Gibson's final against stocky little Darlene Hard was equally one-sided. Gibson wasn't playing at the top of her form, but she bulldozed her way through two sets, volleying superbly. She was the first representative of the Negro race ever to win a Wimbledon title, but the center court raised only an apathetic cheer when the Queen presented her with the big gold salver and Darlene hugged her with sisterly enthusiasm.

MAKING HISTORY

While Miss Gibson was making come kind of sociological sporting history, Lew Hoad was breaking new ground for an amateur. It emerged that his $100,000 contract with Jack Kramer was to be swollen by $25,000 if he won at Wimbledon. In fact, this then-amateur won his bonus on finals day in exactly 55 minutes, thus playing at approximately $455 a minute—surely the most expensive game of tennis ever known. Hoad straddled the tournament like a colossus. He showed the center court tennis such as no one remembered seeing before. It had the experts fumbling for comparisons in the limbo of championships long forgotten, dredging up names like Tilden and Vines. It left the center court gasping. It had watching competitors on their feet. It had the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, with Ashley Cooper as the poor suffering mortal and Hoad as an impersonal Zeus hurling down his thunderbolts. The golden boy at last completely fulfilled the potential he had shown at Wimbledon back in 1952.

Hoad's path to the finals was direct enough but showed no promise of the great things to come. Out in the sticks, the 13 other courts which flank the center court, where sometimes a lady umpire climbs the steep green ladder, Hoad sulked his way through the opening rounds. He objected to linesmen's voices, sneered at umpires, but most of all he hated himself. Netted shots, failed aces, ballooned returns, all sent him into a frenzy of self-reproach.

But he came through the first four rounds against indifferent opposition without losing a set. In the fifth round he met Mervyn Rose. His concentration was at a low ebb that day. He had trouble with Rose's kicking service. And for Hoad there is no such thing as a service ace from an opponent. Said Pat Hughes of Dunlop's, Hoad's guide and mentor in London, "If he doesn't hit that ball, wham, faster than it comes, he reckons he's a failure." Hoad netted more than half his returns during the first two sets, winning the first but losing the second. But then he went into his private mumbo-jumbo routine of willing himself to concentration, banging his racket edge on the ground, staring fixedly at the back line. He won a marathon third set at 10-8, and this seemed to break the back of Rose's resistance. But from his showing that day the experts shook their heads about his quarter-finals to come against Sweden's Sven Davidson. Davidson, they thought, with his telescopic reach at the net, might outfox Hoad. But that wasn't the way it was at all.

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