She deserved a better old age


IT was a miracle that a daughter of Harlem got to play on the fine lawns of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, but very quickly it became a bitter miracle.

Althea Gibson never got rich from her triumphs, and later she was too frail to face the multitudes who would have loved to meet her.

We all lost because of her need for privacy in the later years. We all should have witnessed in person the kind of strong and daring woman it took to learn not only the tennis strokes but also the accompanying curtsies that went along with winning Wimbledon.

Doctors may have something to say about how stress was a factor in the diabetes that killed Jackie Robinson far too young, and the condition that exposed Arthur Ashe to polluted blood, and the strokes, and probably also depression, that kept Gibson from the public eye in the last decades of her life.

It could not have been easy to be Robinson or Ashe or Gibson, who led the way for others, at considerable cost to themselves.

Before blacks designed automobiles and led corporations, before blacks announced their candidacies for president, Althea Gibson went out virtually alone — in a white tennis outfit, in a white world — and excelled.

Althea Gibson poses for a portrait at her home with all her trophies. -- Pic. YVONNE HEMSEY/GETTY IMAGES-

Gibson died at the age of 76 after being close to a recluse for the past 20 years. The spirit that had led her to survive hard times and enabled her to beat country-club women still burned in her, but she did not want strangers to see her old and feeble.

She was available to some people, however. Her best friends, like Fran Gray, the President and Chief Executive of the Althea Gibson Foundation, and Gibson's former doubles partner, Angela Buxton of Britain, attested that Gibson was watching and reading and following back home.

When young black tennis players named Venus and Serena Williams came along, Gibson answered their questions, albeit from a distance.

The gap between these two modern young women and the weary old champion in New Jersey was huge, but mutual friends put Gibson together with Venus on the telephone once in 1997.

"The crowds will love you," Gibson told her. "Be who you are, and let your racket do the talking."

Venus and her sister had already been provided quite enough entitlement to be themselves. Gibson was giving them advice from her memories of the polite veneer when she burst into tennis.

She had somehow learned the game on the street outside her apartment in Harlem, and she had been discovered by the national network of black professionals who prepared prodigies like Ashe and Gibson for the white world.

There was only one of her, which was undoubtedly reassuring to the tennis world. There were no rules against the participation of blacks, as Jackie Robinson faced as a young baseball player. The tennis tradition was separation through the very real barriers of money and class.

After early discouragements, Gibson won Wimbledon and the U.S. nationals in 1957 and 1958 at the advanced age of 30 and 31. The celebrations in the stands were sincere, as far as that went.

Althea Gibson in action at Wimbledon in 1956. She was the first black player to win Wimbledon and the U.S. National titles. -- Pic. GETTY IMAGES-

Nevertheless, within a year, Gibson was a halftime novelty act with the Harlem Globetrotters, who had seen the best black players signed by the National Basketball Association. Gibson had no professional sport opening up for her, but she had already set an example. Leslie Allen had a photograph of Gibson in her room when she was a child, and later Allen played in college and joined the women's tour.

One day, Gibson went to a workout in Boston and gave a personal pep talk to Allen, a willowy young professional. "Don't just settle for winning matches," Gibson told her. "Think about winning the entire tournament."

"It changed my whole mind-set," said Allen, who won enough matches to break into the top 20.

Nowadays Allen works with the Ashe foundation and is a mentor to young African-Americans, stressing the big picture of academics and personal skills needed to succeed in this world.

Tennis is a little more open now than it was when Althea Gibson flamed through it. The public has the right to root for or against Venus and Serena Williams. There are other black players, although not as many as there might be.

And the stands at Flushing Meadows are enriched by passionate tennis fans of all colours, who add their considerable dollars to the rarefied ambiance of the Open. The main stadium at the National Tennis Center is named for Arthur Ashe. A few miles away is a parkway named for Jackie Robinson.

It is a pity that Althea Gibson never got out to the new place, to hear a roar in honour of her short, glorious and ultimately bittersweet career.

New York Times News Service