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Pioneering black women join together to honor Althea Gibson

Pioneering black women join together to honor Althea Gibson

A stadium full of tennis fans swayed and sang along as Aretha Franklin belted out the familiar refrain of her anthem:
R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Respect was what black tennis players were denied before the late Althea Gibson broke the color barrier. Respect is what Gibson demanded with her historic championships a half century ago.
Franklin and nearly two dozen other pioneering black American women were a formidable presence on Monday during the opening night of the U.S. Open. They came together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gibson's 1957 title at the U.S. National Championships, the forerunner to the Open, when she became the first black player, male or female, to win the tournament.
"It's a wonderful, magnificent group of women," Franklin said of her fellow honorees, who wore broad grins as they clapped along behind her during the performance.
After the ceremony, two more women embodied the doors Gibson opened. The ensuing matches on the main court featured Venus and Serena Williams. The sisters narrated the video that opened the tribute, describing the glamorous lives they've been able to enjoy and contrasting that with Gibson, who "toiled in isolation."
"I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea," Venus Williams, who was "so moved" watching the event before her match, said after beating Kira Nagy in straight sets.
"The Cosby Show" star Phylicia Rashad hosted the ceremony, which included Gibson's induction into the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Rashad noted how appropriate it was that the event took place in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, facilities named after two other tennis pioneers.
A video recapping Gibson's life included commentary from King, tennis analyst Bud Collins, Rashad's former co-star Bill Cosby, Serena Williams and fellow player James Blake.
One by one, the trailblazing women were introduced. The list included former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun; ex-WNBA star Cynthia Cooper; singer and songwriter Roberta Flack; U.S. Winter Olympians Vonetta Flowers and Debi Thomas; tennis player Zina Garrison; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison; and Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
At the end, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
Friends and admirers hoped Monday's ceremony would ensure Gibson's triumphs wouldn't be lost to history. Her lack of renown was starkly illustrated when three-time defending men's champ Roger Federer was caught off-guard when asked what he knew about Gibson after his first-round match.
"Nothing, to be honest," he said. "It's before my time. Isn't much I can really say about it. I don't know, I'm sorry."
But others of his time know what she did and what she meant. Serena Williams grew up reading books about Gibson.
"A lot of people don't know who she is," she said after beating Angelique Kerber in straight sets. "They always say, 'Arthur Ashe, Arthur Ashe.' People forget that Althea Gibson was actually years ... before Arthur Ashe. It's important to have nights like this so you can teach young people so they know who they are."


Updated : 2021-08-05 17:13 GMT+08:00