The United States Tennis Association announced plans this week to build a 3,000-seat court in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., the site of the U.S. Open. It’s time for the USTA to correct an inexcusable oversight and name that court after Althea Gibson.
Overcoming years of discrimination, Gibson became the first African-American to compete in a Grand Slam event in 1950. Six years later, she became tennis’ first African-American Grand Slam champion. She was ranked No. 1 in the world and earned five Grand Slam singles titles—the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals (as the U.S. Open was then known) in 1957 and 1958. After her first Wimbledon triumph, she received a ticker-tape parade along the famed Canyon of Heroes in New York City. Born in Clarendon County, South Carolina, Gibson grew up in Harlem, New York, about 10 miles from the U.S. Open site. Yet there is still nothing named for her at the tournament. That needs to change.
Interestingly, the U.S. Open’s 23,000-seat main court is named for Arthur Ashe, who in 1968 became the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam title. And the No. 2 court, the 10,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, existed before the tennis center was built. When asked about it, USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told BET.com that a USTA board member would have to suggest naming the new court after Gibson, and then the full board would vote on it. David Dinkins, who was the first Black mayor of New York City and a friend of Gibson’s, is on the board. Dinkins has yet to respond to an interview request.
The U.S. Open added Gibson to its court of champions in 2007—four years after her death at age 76—but many tennis players are unfamiliar with her. Roger Federer, born and reared in Switzerland, admitted in 2007 that he knew nothing about Gibson. However, Serena and Venus Williams, the most celebrated African-American women in tennis history, know Gibson’s story.
“I once wrote a paper about her for school,” Serena Williams said in a 2006 interview. “I know that it was so hard for her. There were tournaments that wouldn’t let her play because they weren’t accepting Blacks. That went on for years. And when she could get into tournaments, she wasn’t always allowed to use the locker room like the other players, or eat in the dining room like the others. She had to sleep in cars at tournaments when everybody else was sleeping in hotels. She would wake up, play her match, and then she’d go back to the car.”
People need to discover what a trailblazer and sports legend Althea Gibson was. One way to do that is to name our next U.S. Open court after her.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
(Photo: PA Photos/Landov)