Tonight at the U.S. Open, the U.S. Tennis Association will honor Althea Gibson (1927–2003), who is sometimes called the Jackie Robinson of tennis. It’s the 50th anniversary of the historic victory at the U.S. National Championships that made her the first African-American title holder in tennis, and as part of tonight’s ceremony she is being inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions (an honor based on the result of an international media vote).
Not only was Gibson the first African-American athlete ever to enter the U.S. championships in 1950, but she also won 11 grand slams during her career, including five singles titles in a three-year period and doubles titles at Wimbledon with different partners three years running. (No wonder she’s called one of the mothers of women’s tennis.) As part of the opening night tribute, the USTA is holding a “Breaking Barriers” celebration honoring the careers of trailblazing African-American women. Aretha Franklin will be lending her vocals to the festivities.
Other honorees for firsts in their respective fields include the poet Nikki Giovanni, WNBA powerhouse Cynthia Cooper, Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, among others. What an amazing group of women to have in one place. (And women I’ve crushed on at one time or another, I might also add. Seriously, have you ever heard Carol Moseley Braun speak? And she calls marriage for same-sex couples — not civil unions, but marriage — a civil rights issue. Are you listening, Hillary Clinton?)
Billie Jean King will also be on hand. A permanent monument to Gibson will be finding a home at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
OK, so Queen Latifah probably won’t be there. But I couldn’t resist the picture (from Glamour magazine’s 2006 Woman of the Year awards).
Another of the evening’s honorees, BET co-founder and WNBA owner Sheila Johnson, calls Gibson “one of the most under-celebrated individuals in this country.” Gibson was one busy lady, it’s true; in all her free time outside of pro tennis, she sang professionally, took a swing on the LPGA tour, and wrote an autobiography entitled “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.” Today’s celebration is one huge acknowledgment that she certainly was.
A vintage version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” seems in order here.