Tennis’ Most Influential Woman: Althea Gibson Breaks the Colour Barrier

During the 1940s and 50s, most tournaments prohibited African-American athletes from competing with white athletes. Despite this, Althea Gibson still launched herself to international acclaim in the tennis world during (and after) her career; in large part to her talents on the court, and, perhaps more importantly, her influence on African-American athletics off the court. 


Her first love was table tennis and soon after picking it up, she found herself to be the best player in her district. Her talents were soon noticed by a musician that encouraged her to apply her talent to the tennis court and within a year of practice, she had already won her first tournament hosted by the American Tennis Association.


Gibson continued to show steady improvement, and in 1950, at the age of 23, she was permitted to compete in US National Championships, becoming the first black woman to do so. It would be six difficult years before she finally tasted victory at a major tournament, lifting the Women’s Doubles trophy at Wimbledon in 1956 with her teammate, Angela Buxton. In 1957, she became the first black woman to win a Singles Grand Slam when she defeated Darlene Hard in straight sets, again at Wimbledon.


Over the course of her tennis career, she amassed a total of 11 Grand Slam titles, and in 1964, at age 37, retired from tennis and decided to pursue a career in golf. In doing so, she became the first African-American woman to be awarded an LPGA card, which allowed her to compete professionally on the golf course, too.


In 1977, Gibson was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, ensuring that her legacy as one of the game’s most culturally important players lives on forever.


The world of tennis has seldom seen female players rise to levels of stardom reached by their contemporaries in other sports disciplines. This is, in large part, due to the stars of the women’s game – players like Serena and Venus Williams, Billie Jean King, and Gibson – championing a largely successful push for gender equality on the court. 


Wimbledon’s decision to match the prize pool of its male and female competitors in 2007 meant that women were finally afforded equal pay in each of the 4 majors. This victory marked the end of a 34-year campaign for equal pay that began when the US Open afforded women the same right in 1973. The relative success of the gender equality movement in women’s tennis has gone on to spark similar debate in other sports. Football stars like Megan Rapinoe and Basketball stars like Nneka Ogwumike have called pay raises in recent years, and are starting to see the fruits of their labour. WNBA players will routinely play overseas in order to make a living during the off-season, but thanks to an agreement with the US Women’s National Team ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games, the players were able to earn up to $100,000 for their work leading up to the event.


The disparity between the sexes in sport is slowly but surely edging closer, and there are few sporting figures more influential to this development than Althea Gibson.


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