Power By Definition – Althea Gibson

Fetching trophies with ease, meet the late tennis starlet Althea Gibson who habitually stuck herself to the word “champion” – a legacy made in the scope of African American sports history. 

Portrait of Amanda Lear

Image rights to Getty Image

While the likes of Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Coco Gauff deliver thrilling games that made our heads turn tirelessly – from left to right and back to left – what lies beneath the almost-blinding flashing lights, the eruptive applause, and the full-house standing ovations, was a rocky road walked by Althea Gibson.

Born in 1927, Althea Gibson made an instant connection with paddle tennis at a tender age. She sparkled at the age of 12 as a local paddle tennis champion in Harlem, which, later paved her way into playing tennis – her niche. She was undoubtedly a natural. Swinging the racquet and running to and fro across the court, her agility made her a prodigy in the American Tennis Association (ATA), an African American sports organization in the USA. Her name was heard capturing the first of her 10 straight ATA national women’s titles in 1947.

“Winning once can be a fluke; winning twice proves you are the best.”

Thanks to her scintillating success, Gibson went onto studying at the Florida A&M University with a sports scholarship. Despite her unbridled passion in tennis, her skin tone left a notable crevice in her career path as a tennis player. Gibson’s favorite sport was, nevertheless – dominated by white men sitting in ivory towers – highly segregated. And as many would have expected, that means ostracization in and out of the court regardless of her prowess. One could only imagine how much of a frustration that brought to Black players at the time, especially Gibson, who started to have second thoughts on her career choice, doubting how far could her tennis profession stretched out.

Her renavigation in career planning, if not a life crisis, lasted – shortly and fortunately for tennis enthusiasts – until four-time U.S. National singles titlist Alice Marble castigated the tennis industry in American Lawn Tennis magazine. She penned, “If Althea Gibson represents. Challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” The article was a blast. Grasping waves of attention, it fostered Gibson’s way to compete in bigger tournaments. History was also made wherein she was the first African American tennis player to compete at the Wimbledon. Her cadence at the court was as much a blistering momentum as the crisp “pop” of the ball when hit amid the dead silence where everyone held their breath until one side loses. By 1952 Gibson was a Top 10 player, and she slashed through the rankings to find herself in No. 7 just a year later. It took not just her power but also exceptionally strong will to get her there.

Portrait of Amanda Lear

Image rights to Corbis

“No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you.”

Gibson’s games snowballed into a phenomenon, she doubled over on her international games on a State Department tour, travelling in countries like Burma, India and Pakistan. And as ever, it was all victories after victories emblazoned in Gibson’s name – exhilaration at the court reached fever pitch when she won the French Open in 1956, followed by Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. It was monumental.

Portrait of Amanda Lear

Image rights to Library of Congress

A hiatus from tennis was never expected from Gibson, but her going after golf was by the same token not surprising, for her incomparable athletic caliber made her a multi-hyphenate. Gibson powered her way in making historical breakthroughs, this time being the first Black women ever to compete on the pro golf tour. After a short while, the used-to-be tennis starlet returned to the court given her failure in winning on the course. The comeback was, however, not as triumphant. It’s no secret that the lifeline of an athlete declines with age, and Gibson, too, could not evade such inevitability competing with much younger counterparts.

As a tribute to Gibson’s legacy in the court, she was inaugurated into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the wake of her retirement. While she was still pouring her passion into the sport through a handful of service positions, her health deteriorated – suffering from a stroke and heart problems. She passed away in 2003 of a respiratory failure, yet her legacy went on, only more dazzling than ever.

NOIRANCA handbag Amanda in Dusty Rose

Very much so inspired by Gibson’s awing in-court moments that left the world spellbound, ALTHEA pays homage to the invincible power she exuded. Boasting a sharp, structured design, ALTHEA emanates the sophisticated charm women radiate in their demeanor. While the bold triangular shape of the bag embodies the life experience and hard- ships women endure, making them more glamorous than ever.