BLACK TRAILBLAZER: Althea Gibson led the way in both tennis and golf

Long before Venus and Serena Williams left Compton to dominate the world tennis circuit, there was Althea Gibson.

Gibson was the first black athlete to cross the color line in international tennis, winning 56 national and international singles and doubles titles in what was then an amateur sport.

Born in Clarendon County, South Carolina, Gibson was 29 when she became the first person of color to win a grand slam tennis title when she won the 1956 French Open.

The following year she won bothWimbledonand theU.S. Nationals(the precursor of theU.S. Open). She won both again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by theAssociated Pressin both years. In all, she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including six doubles titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

“She is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” said Robert Ryland, a tennis contemporary who once coached VenusandSerena Williams.

Martina [Navratilova] couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.”

When Gibson played tennis, there was no prize money for major tournaments and endorsement deals were prohibited.

To make ends meet, she launched a singing career, recording an album for Dot Records and performing on the Ed Sullivan Show twice.

At 37, she had another career change, becoming the first black to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. She became one of the top 50 players on the tour for five years and remained on the tour for 14 years, but her overall tour earnings never exceeded $25,000.

In 1976, nearing 40, she appeared on the ABC television program Superstars, in which athletes from various sports competed in sports activities they were not associated with. Gibson made it all the way to the finals, winning the basketball shooting and bowling competition and being the runner-up in the softball throw.