New PBS documentary 'rediscovers' groundbreaking tennis great Althea Gibson

In 1950, tennis player Althea Gibson was the first black to play at Forest Hills.
In 1950, tennis player Althea Gibson was the first black to play at Forest Hills. © Bettmann/CORBIS

SAN FRANCISCO — Althea Gibson was all but forgotten in the decade before her death in 2003. That was partially her choosing as she retreated into depression and reclusiveness, but it was also because the world of professional tennis had turned its back on her.

Gibson, the first black to play and win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in the 1950s, is the subject of an often informative new American Masters documentary, Althea, by producer-director Rex Miller. It serves as a reminder of why Gibson deserves to be remembered as a pioneer and one of the greatest tennis players ever.

Her take-no-prisoners style of play reflected her attitude toward life and was acquired when she was a girl whose father was perfectly happy if she wanted to be a tomboy.

When Althea was 3, the family moved from rural South Carolina to Harlem, and Althea grew up on the streets of New York. "Althea came down a hard road," practice partner Bob Davis says. "She was aggressive. She was instinctively aggressive."

Gibson's aggressiveness distinguished her on the courts from the more genteel women who played at country clubs, most of which were restricted. But Gibson was becoming an attraction on the amateur circuit, so she was allowed to play the clubs, even if they'd never admit her as a member.

She and other black players were able to pursue their careers as members of the American Tennis Association. It was much more than a booking agency, though. It put players through rigorous training and practice in Lynchburg, Va. One of the basic ground rules was that you didn't question any calls because that would make it harder for black players to be accepted by the white tennis establishment. That philosophy later became anathema to black power advocates, but at the time, at least, it got players like Gibson and Arthur Ashe noticed.

Gibson became the first black to play Forest Hills in 1950. She was pitted against then Wimbledon champ Louise Brough and was said by many to be on her way to victory when the game was called because of a severe thunderstorm. When the match resumed the next day, Gibson was off her game and narrowly lost.

She came back to win the Nationals seven years later and the next year, then conquered Wimbledon, where she received her winner's cup from Queen Elizabeth.

Despite her victories, Gibson could barely make ends meet. Over the years, she also toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, made records (she was a good singer and sax player) and played golf.

Toward the end of her life, she was living hand to mouth in near obscurity, and depressed to the point of considering suicide, according Angela Buxton, a longtime friend and frequent doubles partner. Buxton and others arranged for a public appeal to the tennis world to help Gibson. She received letters from all over the world with contributions that topped $1 million.