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Commentary: Althea, we won't forget

By RON COLBERT, UPI Sports Managing Editor

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- There was a significant passing in the sports world last week, and it hardly got anymore than lip service.

Students of history easily and quickly will recognize the name of Althea Gibson, a former tennis champion. She was the first black person to play and win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open when tennis was a lily-white sport.

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Sunday morning, Gibson died at the age of 76.

Gibson, a big hitter with a nearly untouchable serve, became the first black person to play at the U.S. Open in 1950 and Wimbledon a year later. She won the French Open in 1956, earned back-to-back titles at Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open in 1957-58, and added three doubles crowns at Wimbledon from 1956-58.

She was, in a word, awesome.

In all, the 5-10 Gibson won 56 tournaments in singles and doubles, including 11 major titles, and was voted the Female Athlete of the Year in 1957-58. Because of her skin color, she was an unlikely tennis queen at the two biggest tournaments in her sport each year.

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More importantly from a human standpoint, she was a solid role model for aspiring young black athletes of all sports in the 1950s, when they really never had a chance. She gave them hope, even with the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby.

She was so athletically gifted, in fact, that in the early 1960s she became the first black player to compete on the women's golf tour. Although she never won a tournament, she played for the love of sports (her first love was basketball), as she did her whole life.

She once earned a reported $100,000 for playing a series of matches before the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters.

Gibson was humble, and always downplayed her success, basically because even she was awe-struck by it. She was born in Silver, S.C., but fortunately, her parents moved the family to New York when she was 3 years old to afford her the chance to be around people who could help her hone her skills and develop her talents.

Without her, there would have been no Venus and Serena Williams, no Zina Garrison, no Chanda Rubin, no Arthur Ashe, maybe no anyone else.

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"She had to be a fighter," said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, referring to the segregation and other forms of racism Gibson faced in the tennis world. "But this was the climate in which Althea achieved greatness. The world was a better place because she was here. She fought her fight. Now she can rest. Game, set, match."

"I for so long was supposed to be the next Althea Gibson," said a tearful Garrison, "but I discovered my role was to fill the gap in a path for women of color. Thank you for the chance to be me. You broke down doors for me and many others. You gave me a chance to be me. Althea, I love you."

Gibson, who had was stroke-ridden in her later years, had been in poor health for years before passing away at East Orange (N.J.) General Hospital Sept 28. A long-time friend said she suffered a heart attack three months ago that kept her bedridden, and entered the hospital two days before she died with bladder and kidney infections before succumbing to respiratory arrest.

Gibson was eulogized in Newark, N.J., on Thursday before a congregation of more than 500 people in attendance.

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Her autobiography was titled, "I Always Wanted to be Somebody." It was written in 1958, which gives you the idea that she knew she was a groundbreaker. Maybe in this generation of I-me-my and trash talk and throat-slashing taunts, we might take a moment to remember that all Althea Gibson did was play and win. Sadly, some folks never knew that.

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