It’s going to be a zinger of a Women’s Final at the 2022 Championships tomorrow, a match of firsts between clever Tunisian player, Ons Jabeur and clean-hitting big server Elena Rybakina from Kazakhstan. With first Grand Slams for either woman, the final on Saturday, the 9th of July will also be the first final for each of the player’s respective countries. And with Ons as the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam Final, the match has a reach far beyond the Centre Court, just as it did for the American tennis player, Althea Gibson, when she won Wimbledon in 1957.
With 11 grand slam titles to her name, Althea is an indisputable tennis champion and a trailblazer for POC in tennis. In a time when white-only clubs found ways of getting around anti-discrimination laws, Althea amassed ranking points and became the first black person to set foot on a tennis court of the US Nationals in 1950. Some six years later she’d walk out onto the courts of another Grand Slam and win the French Open before becoming the first black Champion in Wimbledon’s 80-year history, a decade before better-known Arthur Ashe went on to win the Men’s Championships in 1968. But ultimately, Althea did so much more for us than win tennis tournaments. She went onto inspire indigenous Australian, Yvonne Goolagong, who won the Women’s Championships in 1971, and millions of juniors in the Asian countries she visited, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and Thailand.
Althea was inducted in the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame alongside the likes of aviation pioneer, Amilia Earheart, Olympic record-holding sprinter, Wilma Rudolph and Olympic record-holding swimmer and first woman to cross the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle. She supported herself through work in the entertainment industry but depleted her income financing medical expenses for cerebral hemorrhages and a stroke towards the end of her life. Unable to afford rent or medication, she reached out to several tennis organizations that did not come to her aid.
Fortunately, her British doubles partner, Angela Buxton, reached out to the tennis community and raised $1 million. The two were long-time friends not just on-court but off, too, having shared many challenges, including being denied membership in the All England Club where Wimbledon is played. To this day, despite having won both singles and doubles titles there, and after many applications, Althea Gibson and her Jewish doubles partner, Angela Buxton have never been accepted into the All England Club.
Dear All England Club,
Why not put an end to this embarrassment, posthumously? Better late than never?
Haru and Althea’s and Angela’s extended tennis community
And in the meantime, have a great match Ons and Elena! May the best player win!
PS Read about my love of tennis in a chapter in John Rucynski’s (2022) edited book, A Passion for Japan, pgs 259-267.