Althea Gibson’s legacy is complex and largely forgotten. In many respects Gibson has so far suffered the injustice of being a mere footnote in the biographies of black tennis champions who have proceeded her. In Althea: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson, Sally H. Jacobs meticulously unravels the mystery so delicately attached to the woman that placed the tennis racket into the hands of the Williams sisters.
Jacobs presents a truly sensitive chronicle, within which she dissects the complicated life of a conflicted woman, apathetic of the society she was reluctantly destined to represent. The writer is uniquely adept at describing the straitened circumstances within which Gibson rose to the top of a wealthy white sport.
From people like Sugar Ray Robinson and doubles partner Angela Buxton, to a multitude of civil rights leaders, Gibson was guided by a flurry of different characters, who all enhanced an already ambitious individual with stoicism and excellence.
Transported from the South Carolina home of her enslaved ancestors, the book begins by immersing the reader into the gritty sidewalks of downtown Manhattan, with Harlem approaching renaissance, yet still enveloped with destitution. From languishing on street corners in scruffy garments, to sporting the prim whites of Wimbledon, Jacobs elegantly manoeuvres the reader through a world of hardship, which only the fiercest subject could have possibly navigated. Fortunately, the world had Althea Gibson.
The historical background Jacobs provides of a post-depression Harlem-based youth is rich. She divulges a riveting landscape and introduces a difficult upbringing, fraught with confrontation and misadventure. Jacobs recounts the abusive relationship between Gibson and her father, along with the cultural flowering that coincided with the rise of this great champion.
Jacobs consistently highlights the racism and sexism that was not only utterly pervasive in society, but indeed a present aspect of Gibson’s career. Navigating the reader through the agonising path Gibson had to forge to play professional tennis, Jacobs also carefully explores the sad off-court life Gibson endured. From failed marriages to financial troubles, it is important to recognise that while Gibson’s legacy is uplifting, she was despondent for much of her life.
Her tennis career was consistently undermined and interrogated by an often-critical Black press, who probed into her business and manufactured rumour about her love life. Gibson thus embraced a natural reticence for much of her surroundings.
The significant attention given to many of the tennis matches may eventually become tedious to a reader uninterested in the sport. However, Jacobs gives a meticulously detailed approach to every aspect of Althea’s life, so ultimately this thorough style does not feel forced, nor necessarily overdone.
Jacobs explains Gibson’s outright refusal to be a political activist, despite the expectations of a black community desperately demanding representation. She was frequently dubbed the unwelcome title, the ‘Jackie Robinson of tennis’. While Robinson’s baseball pioneering was wholeheartedly backed by the black community, Gibson felt at odds with them.
The writer stresses how Gibson “let success…speak for her and for the potential of her race, rather than her raised fist.” Such success did indeed pave the way for Zina Garrison, Arthur Ashe, and Venus and Serena Williams, among many others who would follow. One of those many was a certain Billie Jean King, the most crucial figure in the fight for equality in tennis, whom Jacobs references to highlight how Gibson inspired King to “change the world by example.” It was Gibson’s trailblazing example which helped many black tennis stars for whom she broke down barriers be part of tennis’ Open Era revolution that Gibson agonisingly missed out on.
Subtly enticing the reader throughout, one ends up rooting for Gibson and taking umbrage against the many who seek to disrupt or waylay her magnificence.
The book contributes profoundly to a gender, race, and sexuality discourse in sport, and sits neatly among several of its competitors, who similarly provide substance to this dialogue. So carefully cultivated, Jacobs highlights and reconfigures a powerful tale of the street-savvy Harlem youth, who ended up fiercely gripping a haul of grand slam trophies.
Althea is one of the shortlisted books for the 2023 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Awards, to be announced in London on Thursday, November 30.
(Click here to read Sports Gazette’s review of Kick the Latch, another book on the shortlist.)