Long before winning four U.S. Opens singles championships, fighting for equal pay and having the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Tennis Center named after her, Billie Jean King was a girl with a racquet and a dream.
The trailblazer to-be was inspired by a trailblazer on the court named Althea Gibson.
“I got to see her play when I was 13,” King said of the first African-American Grand Slam champion, “I will never forget because I got to see what number one looked like. If you can see it, you can be it.”
After years of lobbying, Gibson now holds a permanent place on National Tennis Center. A statue in front of the center’s flagship Arthur Ashe Stadium was unveiled Monday, the opening day of the U.S. Open. The honor for the five-time grand slam singles champion, including U.S. National Championships in 1957 and 1958, was seen as long overdue.
One day after what would have been her 92nd birthday, and on Women’s Equality Day, a statue of Althea Gibson will be unveiled tomorrow at the #USOpen. Getting to know her was a privilege. I am grateful to her always for showing me what No. 1 looked like. https://t.co/3ZOu7vgTGY— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) August 25, 2019
“Welcome home Althea Gibson,” King said at the unveiling ceremony. “A lot of us have waited a long time for today to happen. We’ve finally gotten over the finish line.”
For years, King has asked USTA why Gibson, who was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, was not recognized in own her country. “This is something that I have wanted for a while,” USTA President Katrina Adams told The Undefeated last year “Recognizing for me as an African-American woman and recognizing what Althea stood for and understanding that she truly broke the color barrier for tennis — a lot of people think it’s Arthur [Ashe], but it was Althea 11 years before him.”
Born on a South Carolina farm in 1927, Gibson’s family moved North to New York City when she was three. In 1939, she won the city paddle ball championship at age 12 and was prodded to pursue tennis.
In the early 1940s, she was competing in the all-black American Tennis Association. By age 17, she had grown into a powerful 5-foot-11 inch frame, and showing signs of greatness. She drew the attention of Hubert Eaton, doctor and tennis champion, and Robert Johnson, who would start the ATA’s junior development program in his backyard in 1951.
Both were seeking to find a player who could integrate the all-white U.S. Lawn Tennis Association tournaments. They believed they found their player in Gibson, and in 1946, both began to prepare her, as a player and a person.
In 1950, Gibson competed in her first U.S. National Championship, the forerunner to the modern U.S. Open. She has a breakout in a tough loss to Louise Brough in the second round where she forced the defending Wimbledon champion to rally in the third set. From there Gibson won a number of national and international titles and competed well in the Grand Slams, but fell short of winning one of the biggest prizes — and then came 1956, 1957 and 1958.
Gibson grand slams came in a two-year wave, beginning with her groundbreaking win in Paris in 1956. In 1957 she defeated Darlene Hard to win her first Wimbledon title, then at the U.S. Nationals she repaid Brough by defeating her in the finals. She repeated at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1958.
Yet after 56 total tournament victories, including 11 Grand Slam doubles and singles titles, Gibson retired, and reportedly became reclusive in her later years. She died in 2003 at age 76.
For King, giving Gibson proper due has been her cause for over 20 years. In December 2017, the USTA board was discussing the matter when Adams asked King to to talk to the USTA board. It was supposed to be a 5-minute presentation and she changed a lot of minds in those minutes.
“I said that she’s the Jackie Robinson of tennis as she needs to be appreciated for it,” King said. “I wanted something there that was permanent. I didn’t want just a one-day highlight.”
The board approved her proposal the same day and Monday’s unveiling was not only a commemoration but also a long-delayed thank you from one trailblazer to another. “She is my sheroe,” King said. “We owe her so much. Our entire sport, our entire country, and our entire world.”