Before Venus and Serena, tennis had Althea Gibson

A Black tennis player at the top of her game challenges an umpire’s calls during a tournament and the backlash is swift. Immediately after the match, an Australian newspaper runs a cartoon depicting the athlete as a hulking, animal-like crybaby, exaggerated lips, pacifier and all. This is 2018, and the player in question is Serena Williams.

But the story could’ve just as easily appeared in Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson (Oxford University Press, $30, Feb. 7), a biography of an 11-time Grand Slam winner whose elite career stretched from 1946 to 1958. The book lays out an uncannily similar incident in the lead up to Gibson’s first women’s singles championship at Wimbledon in 1957. The cartoonist “exaggerated the size of her lips, which he pushed forward into a pout,” gave her “shifty” eyes and depicted Gibson speaking in dialect.

“The press could not simply acknowledge that Gibson was a good player but had to blend insults with praise and distasteful references to her perceived racial differences,” writes the book’s author Ashley Brown, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on African American, women’s and sports history.

Serving Herself is a stark reminder of how, in some ways, little has changed in tennis since Gibson’s trailblazing career began more than three-quarters of a century ago—and how hard it still is for a Black woman to succeed in the sport.

Much like the Williams sisters, Gibson did succeed. She was the first African American to win a Grand Slam title (in France in 1956) and be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (in 1971). Five of her major championships were in singles, including Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the US National Championship in 1957 and 1958. Her six others were in doubles and mixed doubles. She was the first Black female athlete to appear on the cover of Time, and in back-to-back years—1957 and 1958—was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.

The book traces Gibson’s youth in Harlem to her training in North Carolina and Virginia, which was sponsored by two wealthy Black doctors. Hubert Eaton invited Gibson to live with him and his family in Wilmington during the school year so she could finish high school. In the summer, she would stay with another mentor, Robert Walter Johnson, who would train her and travel with her to tennis tournaments across the country.

Both doctors agreed to pay her personal and tennis expenses and give Gibson “intensive lessons and virtually unlimited opportunities to play on the tennis court that each man had in his backyard,” writes Brown. Johnson told Gibson she was the “key to unlock the door” that kept Black players out of the most prestigious tennis championships. Those early days paved the way for Gibson to become the first Black athlete to compete at the US National Lawn Tennis Championship, the tournament now called the US Open, then held in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y.

Her success, when it came, wasn’t simply a product of training or skill or even competition. It was also the result of relentless campaigning by members of the American Tennis Association, the Black tennis organization where she got her start, and a heavily publicized letter written by Alice Marble, a White champion tennis player, which argued for her inclusion at Forest Hills. 

Brown’s narrative is at its best when it contextualizes the most consequential moments in Gibson’s career within the backdrop of broader racial tensions. In the final before her first women’s singles championship win at Forest Hills in 1957, Gibson faced off with Louise Brough, who had sent her home during her first appearance at the tournament seven years earlier. After Gibson triumphed, Richard Nixon, vice president at the time, awarded Gibson her trophy. Some 1,200 miles away in Arkansas, federal troops were being ordered to protect nine Black students from an angry mob opposed to school integration. 

At the time, African Americans who watched a film about Gibson “commented wryly that the same country could produce both the hatred of Little Rock and the historic events of Gibson’s career,” Brown writes.

Gibson’s career was indeed historic but not, Brown shows, particularly lucrative. Tennis players in Gibson’s league couldn’t win championship prize money until 1968—a decade after she left the sport. She earned $75 a month ($760 in today’s dollars) to use a Harry C. Lee racquet. The sponsorship was decidedly subpar compared with those of her White peers: Equipment manufacturers like Wilson and Spalding created autograph models for stars like Marble; the racquet Gibson endorsed (dubbed “the Bat,”) “was adorned with a small picture of an actual black bat,” writes Brown, not her image or signature.

Professional opportunities also favored men. The biggest promoter of the time, Jack Kramer, argued that women’s professional tennis was a losing proposition due to what he claimed was a lack of fans. Kramer gave stars like Pancho Gonzalez salaries, performance-based bonuses and a cut of ticket sales for their tours. In 1957, he signed champion Lew Hoad signed to a contract worth $125,000 for a 25-month tour.

Gibson made about $80,000 to play exhibition tennis games on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, though she took home far less than that after expenses. Almost a third, $22,000, went to a salary for her opponent, Karol Fageros, and an undisclosed amount went to pay crew, a road manager and business manager, and Gibson’s own secretary and assistant. After declining to tour with the Globetrotters again, Gibson struck out on another, short-lived tour under her own corporation for which she absorbed the entire loss of nearly empty audiences. By the end of 1960, her company was between $20,000 and $25,000 in debt.

That year she gave up tennis altogether and embarked on a series of ventures. She began a professional golf career and, starting in 1960, earned $25,000 a year as a community relations representative for the Ward Baking Co., promoting the company’s Tip-Top bread at events. 

Gibson broke barriers in golf, too. She was the first Black American to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. But her best finish in the sport was a tie for second, and by 1967, Gibson was “barely getting by” financially, writes Brown. Earlier forays into entertainment—she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to promote an album of jazz songs and acted as a house slave in a Civil War era movie—didn’t add much to her fortunes.

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, a longtime friend, said if she’d come along a “half-step later” in her tennis career, she would have been a multimillionaire. By the end of her life, though, she was getting by on Social Security checks. 

Three years before her death, Gibson did get to see Venus Williams win Wimbledon in 2000. It was the first time a Black woman had won the tournament since Gibson in the late 1950s. When Williams won, Gibson sent a congratulatory message: “You are now in the history books forever.”

To contact the author of this story:
Kelsey Butler in New York at

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

Share This article on