Courtesy of Florida A&M Sports Information
The start of the final major tennis tournament began on Monday, but it wasn’t just any ordinary day.
That’s because the U.S. Open, on Women’s Equality Day, unveiled a statue of former Florida A&M women’s tennis great and former Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson.
The ceremony was held in front of an audience filled with famous faces, including Christiane Amanpour, Katrina Adams, Sloane Stephens and former played Chanda Rubin, Zina Garrison, Angela Buxton and Leslie Allen.
Placed just outside Arthur Ashe stadium, the sculpture -- created by Eric Goulder -- pays tribute to one of the most important trailblazers in the sport.
“The whole sculpture reads from left to right,” Goulder said. “So things were this way. Then there is the shift … Things were brewing in the world that would allow her to do what she did. She didn’t just break the color barrier. She became the best in the world. This was at a time when people were like, Black people can’t play tennis.”
Gibson, a native of Clarendon County, S.C., came to Florida A&M in 1949 after becoming the first Black woman, and the second Black athlete, to play in the United States Tennis Association’s (UTSA) National Indoor Championships, where she reached the quarterfinals.
Gibson was a five-time Grand Slam champion, including two U.S. Open titles, and was ranked No. 1 in the world in 1957. But more than that, she paved the way for black women in sports, including Venus and Serena Williams.
In 1956, she became the first black player to win a Grand Slam, and in 1957, she won her first U.S. Open -- just six years after she was finally allowed to compete in New York. Support from the American Tennis Association and retired champion Alice Marble helped Gibson break the color barrier at white-only clubs.
Billie Jean King, another crucial ambassador for women’s tennis, gave the speech on Monday at the statue unveiling.
“I think it’s really important for people to know about Althea Gibson. Not only who she is, but what she represented to all of us,” King said. “I know I’m a white girl, but as a 13-year-old, she totally inspired me, and that can happen to anybody. Doesn’t matter what color.”
King also wished Gibson, who passed away in 2003, could have been recognized earlier, as Sunday (Aug. 25) could have marked her 92nd birthday.
“As women, we do not get the same respect. We do not. We still do not,” King said. “And if you’re a person of color, I can’t imagine what you go through each day. It’s exhausting. But we can talk about what didn’t happen, but what has happened is what’s important, and we finally have gotten over the finish line.”