Friday, July 06, 2007

Althea Gibson and Wimbledon's missed opportunity

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of Larry Doby's first appearance in a major league baseball game. The next year, he became the first black athlete to win a World Series ring.

But one large personal triumphs for a black athlete, one that pales only in comparison to Jesse Owens' gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, occurred 50 years ago. And Jemele Hill of ESPN is right -- the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club should have noted it this week at the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Wimbledon.

In 1957 Althea Gibson won Wimbledon. There's a degree to which this is not quite as notable as other triumphs -- Gibson integrated the sport by participating in the U.S. Championships in 1950 (she won in '57 and '58), won the French Open in 1956 and won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles titles in 1956. But her victory in 1957 established her as the top player in the game, who had won the biggest tournament.

Gibson's record is entirely too unfamiliar to most. She was the best tennis player in the world from 1956-58. She won 5 singles Grand Slam titles, and six doubles Grand Slams (5 women's, one mixed) at a time that doubles competition was no less prestigious than singles matches.

Then she quit.

Tennis operated on an Olympic model before 1968 -- only amateurs could play the Grand Slams. To make money, players needed to play on a professional tour.

Speaking of integrating a sport -- Althea Gibson did Jackie Robinson one better: she not only integrated tennis, she integrated women's golf. In 1964, she joined the LPGA tour -- although she never won a tournament, she was the first black athlete on that tour. Thus, America's two country club sports were integrated by one woman.

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