Black stars of the present and the future were the talk of this year’s U.S. Open. But 60 years prior, Althea Gibson made history by becoming the first black athlete to win the tournament.
When Gibson arrived at what was then called the U.S. National Championship, she was already a tennis pioneer. Gibson was just one year removed from shattering a glass ceiling many thought would be impossible to crack.
In 1956, she became the first black tennis player to win a grand slam by capturing the French Open Women’s title. Months before her historic run at the 1957 U.S. Nationals, she was the first African-American to be crowned champion at Wimbledon. She was even congratulated by Queen Elizabeth II, who was in attendance for her first Wimbledon match.
“Shaking hands with the Queen of England,” she wrote in her autobiography, “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”
Gibson’s stellar grand slam performances meant all eyes were on her when she arrived to compete at the West Side Tennis Club in Queens. She became a fixture at the U.S. Nationals after breaking the event’s color barrier in 1950. The Florida A&M alum was just 23 years old when she made her debut at the tournament.
Now at the top of her game, number one seed Gibson dominated the field before defeating six-time grand slam champion Louise Brough 6-3, 6-2 in the tournament’s final. She also teamed with Kurt Nielsen of Denmark to capture the tournament’s Mixed Doubles title.
The wins capped off a remarkable year for Gibson, who competed in the singles final at three of the four grand slams. The following year, she successfully defended her titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championships. Including her doubles titles, Gibson finished her career with 11 total grand slams.
During this year’s U.S. Open, a statue of Gibson was unveiled at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing-Meadows, Queens.
“I said, ‘She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis and she needs to be appreciated for it, and she’s not,’ ” King told The Undefeated in 2018. “I wanted something there that was permanent. I didn’t want just a one-day highlight.”