Althea Gibson: tennis champ, sports pioneer

Kids will want to know about Althea Gibson, a pioneering African-American tennis player.

Tennis star Althea Gibson had game. Whether she was playing in the streets of Harlem in New York City or on a court in France, Ms. Gibson was a fierce competitor. So much so that in 1957 she became the first African-American to win Britain's most famous tennis tournament, Wimbledon.

Ms. Gibson's "firsts" in the sport were so important that people still honor her today. This summer marked the 50th anniversary of her victory at Wimbledon. To commemorate the occasion, a group of famous African-Americans sang her praises at the opening of the 2007 US Open tennis tournament.

That evening, tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams credited Ms. Gibson with paving the way for African-American women to be able to compete freely in tennis. The Williams sisters appreciate how hard Ms. Gibson worked to reach her dreams.

Back in the 1930s and '40s, when Ms. Gibson first started playing tennis, black players weren't allowed to compete against white players. But she was so good that she soon dominated the all-black tournament circuit. To keep improving her game, she needed to break the "color barrier" and compete with white players.

Her opportunity finally came – with a little help. Alice Marble, a well-known white tennis player, was ashamed that athletes were segregated by skin color. So she wrote an article in a tennis magazine saying that Ms. Gibson should be allowed to play with white opponents. In 1950, Ms. Gibson was invited to compete in the US Lawn Tennis Association's National Championship (now called the US Open).

Ms. Gibson went on to win the 1956 French Open, the 1957 and '58 National Championships, and the '57 and '58 Wimbledon Championships. She was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in '57 and '58, the first African-American to win that title.

But before Ms. Gibson attained such success, she had a few other challenges to overcome. She had to learn how to control her temper, have self-discipline, and listen to those who wanted to help her.

Kids can learn about this in the new children's picture book, "Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson." Author Sue Stauffacher uses simple, spirited words to recount Ms. Gibson's life from her tomboy adolescence in New York to her poised performance at the '57 Wimbledon tournament. The vibrant pictures in "Nothing but Trouble" make the story compelling.

If you like tennis – or any sport – Althea Gibson is an athlete you'll want to be familiar with. To learn more, take a trip to the library to find other books, including her autobiography, "I Always Wanted to Be Somebody." Also visit www.altheagibson.com.

Thanks to her determination and the support of caring mentors, Ms. Gibson became a champ – and a pioneering example to other female and black tennis players.

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