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Althea Gibson Honored With A New Statue At The U.S. Open

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today is the first day of the U.S. Open, and fans will be greeted by a new sculpture. It's of Althea Gibson. Often called the Jackie Robinson of tennis, Gibson was the first African American to cross the sports color line when she competed in 1950 at what we now call the U.S. Open.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here's Gibson describing that first match.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALTHEA GIBSON: And all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, it got dark so fast, and lightning struck the eagle on the stadium at Forest Hills and knocked it down. And then there was a torrential rain.

CHANG: Gibson lost the match, but in no way did it signal the end of her career.

KELLY: No, she kept getting better. In 1956, she won her first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros in Paris, another of her many firsts. The following year, she went on to win the U.S. Open as well as Wimbledon; both firsts for an African American player.

CHANG: She was also the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.

Althea Gibson is not a household name like Arthur Ashe or Billie Jean King, but the United States Tennis Association hopes to change that with this new sculpture.

BOB DAVIS: Well, I think her legacy is being recognized now - a bit late, and I'm sorry about that because Althea never did really feel appreciated for her accomplishments. But, you know, as they say, better late than never.

KELLY: That's Bob Davis, a former hitting partner of Gibson's when she was living in Harlem. He says Gibson's accomplishments have always been well-known in the African American community and have inspired many young black tennis players.

DAVIS: People of color now recognize that they can aspire to great things in a sport, which, back in our day, was not the case at all.

CHANG: Gibson chose not to engage directly with the issue of civil rights during her career. Davis says she let her playing speak for itself.

DAVIS: To the chagrin of a great number of African American civil rights leaders at the time that were looking for her to take a stand on civil rights, she just played. She wanted to play tennis. She wanted to be as good as she can be, and she accomplished some great things.

CHANG: Gibson was proud of her style of play and told NPR about it in an interview in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GIBSON: It has been written that I had the best women's serve in tennis history, and I believe it (laughter). There was one reporter that wrote when they saw me serve, they said it was like a bolt out of the blue traveling over a hundred miles an hour. Well, of course, in those years, I was young, skinny and strong, and I wasn't against using a lob to outmaneuver my opponent.

KELLY: So, tennis fans, when you're watching the Open this year, or maybe you're out whacking balls on the court this weekend, pause for a moment, maybe raise your racket - a little salute to Althea Gibson.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMOGEN HEAP SONG, "TIDAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.