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Althea and the colour of courage
- Tribute to a pioneer who broke barriers and changed the face of women’s tennis

Oakland: Trailblazer Althea Gibson will be remembered by many as tennis’ version of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the colour barrier in baseball, friends and admirers said this week.

Gibson, who died on Sunday at the age of 76, was the first African-American to reach the highest levels of tennis, dominating the women’s game in the late 1950s with five Grand Slam titles.

“It’s more than fair to call her our Jackie Robinson,” said black American Rodney Harmon, the director of US men’s tennis coaching and a former touring professional, ahead of Gibson’s funeral in Newark, New Jersey, on Thursday.

“She’s really the one who led the way and was the player and person we all looked to. Without her, there might not have been an Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, MaliVai Washington and Serena and Venus Williams.”

Robinson, who died in 1972, was the first African-American to play Major League baseball, in the 1940s, and was widely credited with being responsible for the acceptance of black athletes in professional sports.

He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to six National League pennants and one world series, was rookie of the year in 1947 and league batting champion and Most Valuable Player in 1949.

Garrison, who reached the 1990 Wimbledon final and is now a United States Fed Cup coach, said that if it had not been for Gibson, she would have never have attempted a professional career.

“I wouldn’t have even thought it was possible,” said Garrison. “She not only broke barriers for people of colour but for women and women of colour. She taught us that if you want to succeed, you have to work extra hard and persevere. That’s exactly what she did.”

Gibson, the first black tennis player to win the Wimbledon and US national championships, was born to sharecroppers on a cotton farm in South Carolina and raised in Harlem.

In 1956 the tall, powerful right-hander became the first black woman to win a major tennis crown by taking the French championships title, a triumph which set the stage for a brilliant two-year run.

In 1957, Gibson won the Wimbledon women’s singles title and the US national crown at Forest Hills.

The serve-and-volleying Gibson dominated the following season as well, again sweeping the Wimbledon and US championship titles.

“You don’t win as much as she did if you weren’t a truly great player,” said Harmon. “She helped popularise serve-and-volley as a style of play. It was an exciting, athletic style that became a trend in the 1970s. Among minorities of my generation, Althea was the face of tennis. She had a profound effect.”

Both Harmon and Garrison received instruction from Gibson when they were young.

Garrison, who became a lifelong friend of Gibson, said that it was her heroine who pushed her toward success.

“When I was 15 she told me that there was no way I could make it if I didn’t work harder,” Garrison said.

“She told me that my serve wasn’t good enough and that because I was short...I would have to work three times as hard as everyone else. I quit for about three weeks after that but came back because she was such a huge presence who inspired me. When everyone else would run 20 laps, I’d run 50.”

Gibson retired from the still-amateur ranks of tennis after the 1958 season, having won 11 major tennis titles in singles and doubles.

In her later years, Gibson still followed tennis but, according to Garrison, was bitter that she was never able to cash in on her success and was mentally exhausted from being the torchbearer for women minority athletes.

Garrison said that was one of the reasons why Gibson was so happy with the success of the Williams sisters. (Reuters)

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