Comedian Steve Martin once said, “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.” Have you ever thought about what that means?
Meet Althea Gibson. Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, and died on September 28, 2003. At a time when racism and prejudice were unapologetic in sports, Gibson’s ability to play elite tennis could not be denied. She became the first black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis.
Gibson’s rise to fame started out very troublesome. In short, she was a child without direction and oftentimes acted out. School held no interest to her. At one point, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s staff informed her that she would be placed into reform school if her delinquency continued.
Fortunately, she found something that captured her attention. The Police Athletic League sponsored recreational programs. Gibson quickly became proficient in paddle tennis and became the New York City Women’s Paddle Tennis Champion at the age of 12.
Musician Buddy Walker noticed her skills and took her to the upscale Harlem Cosmopolitan Club to play tennis. There some club members were impressed and bought her a junior membership, tennis clothes, tennis lessons with tennis professional Frederick Jonson and taught her tennis etiquette.
Yes, she was that good.
In 1946, while playing at a competition, Gibson caught the attention of two doctors who were active in the American Tennis Association. They offered to provide her with a room, board and an education at no charge. Initially, she hesitated and nearly turned down their invitation because she did not like school.
Sugar Ray Robinson and his wife, however, encouraged her to take the opportunity and use it to better her life. Fortunately, she listened and in 1949 she graduated among the top ten in her class at Williston Industrial High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition, she received a full athletic scholarship to Florida A & M University.
In 1950, Gibson became the first African-American player, male or female, to compete in a Grand Slam event. In this case, she received an invitation to the United States Championships Nationals (known more commonly today as the U.S. Open), but not before receiving a little help from former world No. 1 American tennis player Alice Marble.
Although the United States Tennis Association rules officially prohibited racial or ethnic discrimination, players qualified for the Nationals by accumulating points at sanctioned tournaments. Note, most of the tournaments were held at white-only clubs.
On July 1, 1950, Marble published a scorching open letter in the magazine American Lawn Tennis in which she stated, “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
In 1957, Gibson became the first African-American to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals and the first to be named the AP Female Athlete of the Year. In 1958, Gibson successfully defended her Wimbledon and U.S. National singles titles. Also, she won her third straight Wimbledon doubles championship with a third different partner.
In 1957 and 1958, Gibson was the number-one-ranked woman in the world and was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. She also became the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.
As you can imagine, Gibson had many more accomplishments both on and off the tennis courts. She inspired a nation in a time of turbulent racism.
Just think, this history could have easily been avoided had Gibson not taken advantage of the life-changing opportunities that crossed her life’s path — because she was so good that she couldn’t be ignored. Things may not be easy, but they are possible. Get it done. Be that good!