Althea Gibson Vs. Arthur Ashe: A Contrast

Julian JohnsonCorrespondent IApril 14, 2009

Saraswathi has asked me to answer a series of questions about the relative contributions of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the game of tennis. Here goes:

1) In terms of their contributions to changing the tennis map, who is greater?

Althea was the one who Dr. Robert Walter Johnson identified as a player who could potentially integrate the segregated tennis game. It all came together at the 1946 American Tennis Association Championships in Wilberforce, OH. 

The ATA was and is the black equivalent of the United States Tennis Association; the ATA was created because "Negroes" could not play white tournaments.

Dr. J (my grandfather) approached Althea after she was beaten in the finals of the women's championship that year, by Ms. Roumania Peters.  Dr. J had been speaking to another black doctor in the stands as they watched the frustrated Althea self destruct against her opponent. 

The Lynchburg, VA physician leaned over to his buddy and whispered, "I wish there was something we could do for that girl." Over the remainder of the match, they formulated a plan.

Now, Dr. J stood before Althea and asked, "how would you like to play at Forest Hills," which is where the US National Championships, later, the US Open were held.  She asked why he was joking with her as no Negro had yet to play the whites-only event. "You could play there," he told her. And in 1950, she did.

She was 19.  The two doctors insisted that Althea finish her schooling as she was a seventh grad dropout.  She lived with Dr. Hubert Eaton during the school year and summers with Dr. J when she would train on his backyard claycourt. 

After a few weeks of practice, they would hit the road and play all of the black tournaments that Dr. J's schedule would allow.  Althea never lost a singles match in the ATA again.

She was groomed for greatness and her results became too good to deny.  She was accepted at Forest Hills, the first Negro to play there.  She would eventually win Forest Hills and Wimbledon twice, as well as the French. 

She was the Jackie Robinson of tennis and the game had never seen a woman with her skills and athleticism, so there is no question she was the greatest.

Arthur had a tremendous advantage in being No. 2.  Yes, he was the first Negro male, and during that era black males tended to bear the brunt of racist violence.  But, Althea had charted a course that Arthur and his mentor—who just happened to be HER mentor as well—could learn from and follow. 

Althea's trials and sacrifice made Arthur's life far easier than if he'd had to both lay the track and drag the engine. 

Arthur's timing was exquisite: he emerged in the middle of a televised revolution in the United States and much of the globe, with characters as disparate as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis appearing regularly on the evening news or in the daily newspaper. 

And here was Arthur, a member of the US Army when many blacks, like Ali, were refusing to fight for Uncle Sam in Vietnam, speaking out in moderation and intelligence. 

You had John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising their black gloved fists at the Olympics in Mexico as Arthur was winning the first US Open which joined amateurs and professionals for the first time.

Arthur charted his moderate course through these choppy waters, and became a champion (and an incredibly appealing personality) just as big money and big-time attention and interest were greatest. 

So, Arthur's relative greatness must be measured by the serendipitous timing and good fortune of his being born second, and to have shown up when the Tennis Boom was in full bloom. 

2) Who has greater shots?

Althea was probably a better athlete, better mover.  She served hard and volleyed sharply and beat most of the men she played at my grandfather's house. I would give the edge to Althea only because there were few women who played as physical a game.  She changed the game and inspired women like Billie Jean King to attack the net with abandon.

When he was a kid at Dr. J's, Ashe was a pusher, keeping balls in play and outlasting the competition. As he got older, he got bolder and was known for his huge serve and explosive backhand.

Ashe was a little stiff and upright in his bearing and his game could go off the rails, but he matured into an extremely thoughtful and cagey player. Just ask Jimmy Connors.

3) Why the tennis foundation gave Arthur Ashe his due but not Althea Gibson?

Althea didn't really want to be looked at as the first Negro to integrate tennis and be kept in that tiny box;she had larger aspirations.  After all, she also became the first Negro to play the LPGA tour; for this amazing double alone, she should be chiseled on somebody's "sports Mt. Rushmore."

She also played the saxophone and appeared in a Hollywood film with John Wayne. But being constantly tagged or ID'd by race seemed a form of diminishment to Althea. Ashe, by contrast,seemed to relish his status far more and embrace the role of racial ambassador. 

Ashe wrote a couple of books while he was still playing in which he discussed his life on the road and his upbringing.  Kind of like Obama.  He positioned himself to be a larger figure.  Althea came along before Open tennis, before the big money and big spotlight. 

She didn't take the same aggressive tack that Arthur seemed to when it came to putting herself out there.Plus, being a woman, I believe that all of her achievements were downplayed and obscured out of plain sexism.

And with the arrival of the 1960's and the increasing militancy by black male leaders who were handed microphones and expected to speak for all black folks, few women were accorded the honor.

4) What is the current state of affairs, with respect to minorities in sport?

When it comes to the presence of black people in big time tennis, you have to ask yourself: There have been four African American world tennis champions: Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Venus and Serena Williams.  Four. 

Those four were coached by two black men, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson and Richard Williams. Their achievements were separated by 40 odd years. 

How can it be that the ONLY black tennis champions were produced by two black men on minuscule budgets when the USTA takes in MILLIONS and supposedly spends hundreds of thousands if not millions on so-called, "multicultural programs" and "junior development?"

I believe that if the US tennis community was truly interested, they would have found the talent by now—the Jordans, the Iverson—that is laying idle in ghettos and other communities all over this country.

And they would not rest until children that talented were convinced to drop the basketball and grab the tennis racket. But then, those children would likely take over the tennis world.

The tennis community does not want what happened to the NBA to happen to it. All of the negativity that is projected at, dredged up and ladled on the Williams sisters in the tennis media, for "not being this, or being too that," is simply the coded expression of a desire for them to go away.

They are not wanted—except for their ability to generate profit. The hate will never be uttered openly, but it has been said in too many words, by Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Michael Stich and too many others to mention.

4a.) I guess African Americans are not still considered as minorities or are they?

We are considered minorities in tennis at least, which means un-integrated and un-integrate-able, undesirable, unwanted. What sport treats their natives as poorly as the Williams sisters are treated by the tennis community here?

5) What could be done to improve the sport so that minorities are given their due? What can be done at the grass-roots level? What is being done at the grass-roots level?

Black folks and other minorities need to raise cash, by tapping professional athletes, entertainment figures, or independently wealthy folks, in order to nurture our talent. No one else has done it for us but us.

There are some folks doing good work; if we had a consortium of black tennis pros who communicated, who created our own training facility(ies), utilizing the know-how we have gained from playing junior, college or professional tennis...the sky's the limit.

But the solution begins with a vision, a vision to find the talent that we know is there and it ends with the money and resources to get the job done. 

The brainpower is there.  The coaching acumen is there. The blueprint is there: if Dr. J could do it and if Richard Williams could do it, then so can Leslie Allen,Katrina Adams, MaliVai Washington, Joe Ragland, Willis Thomas, John Wilkerson, Zina Garrison and all the other great black players.

It can be done, because it was!

6) Who are the upcoming stars?

Hmmm. Madison Keys...Danielle Mills...Asia Muhammad.



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