Exactly 50 years ago yesterday, Althea Gibson (pictured) became the first African-American to win the American tennis championship, receiving a trophy from Vice President Richard M. Nixon.It was her second major celebrity encounter of the season. In early summer, she had received the Wimbledon trophy from none other than Queen Elizabeth — not a bad season for a woman from uptown.
After winning in the United States, Gibson spoke from her heart and from her pocketbook, saying, “After all, I’ve got to start earning a living,” a reference to the prevailing pretense of amateurism, with its meager under-the-table payoffs.
Gibson never did make much money from her sport, but 50 years later Justine Henin earned a cool $1.4 million last night for winning the modern version of that tournament, now known as the United States Open — “open” referring to the coffers.
Henin defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-1, 6-3, on a night when Carole King sang “Girl Power” in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, named after the instigator of the Open era for women. Billie Jean, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver were all present, from the far more lucrative golden age.
It is fair to say that Gibson, who died in 2003 at age 76, would recognize as her spiritual heirs not only the two African-American sisters, Serena and Venus Williams, but also Henin and Kuznetsova.
The Belgian and the Russian surely caused conniptions for CBS, which would have much preferred to show the two American sisters or the glamorous, and don’t you forget it, Maria Sharapova from that posh Russian tennis resort of Bradenton-on-Gulf.
None of these were available, having lost earlier in the tournament. Althea Gibson’s spiritual daughters run in all sizes and shapes, colors and humors. The Williams sisters annoy some people with their self-preoccupation. Then again, Henin turns off some fans because of her tense demeanor and a few past examples of gamesmanship, the type that made icons of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Can’t please everybody.
Gibson ran into the perceptions of her own generation. After her great triumph in 1957, The New York Times used words like “lithe” and “muscular” and “saunters.” She was said to display “little emotion” and demonstrated a “powerful net attack” and was said to be “too strong” for her opponent in the semifinal, Dorothy Knode, who was described as “tenacious.”
These days it is somewhat more acceptable for the trim Henin to be a driven jock with a killer one-handed backhand. Looking like a waif with her oversized ball cap and rather Spartan outfit, Henin whacked sister Serena in the quarterfinals and sister Venus in the semifinals.
Half a century after Gibson expressed gratitude for being allowed into the white enclave, the Williamses behave exactly as they want, even if they are criticized for it. Serena was a tad grumpy after her loss to Henin, but no more than Andy Roddick was after losing yet again to Roger Federer one night later. Apparently, white males still have more leeway in the churlishness department.
After losing to Henin on Friday, Venus answered all the questions properly peppered at her by reporters about the trainer’s visit late in the match as well as her moments of lethargy. Her family is saying she may have anemia and they may have to check it out, but Venus did not push any alibis.
In this multicultural age of tennis, the tone is also set by people from different lands. On Sept. 11, 2004, two Russian finalists in prime time, Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva, mourned violence in both nations, the horrors in the United States in 2001 as well as the more recent massacre of innocents at a school in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 3, 2004.
In this Open, three of the most charismatic figures have come from war-ravaged Serbia. Novak Djokovic, who will meet Roger Federer in the men’s final today, has not only been hilarious in his imitations of his peers, but has also been thoughtful in interviews, as have the two vanquished Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.
With her warm smile, Jankovic captivated the crowd by applauding a few great shots by Venus, who beat her in the quarterfinals. Later, Jankovic said: “I think you have to have fun sometimes on the court. I don’t think you have to always be so serious like some of the players are. You have to enjoy it.”
Gibson might recognize Venus Williams’s stoic refusal to go easily in several taut matches. Asked if she had faith in her ability to bounce back, Venus said quickly, “Always.”
Going into this Open, Venus had career earnings of $17,801,117 50, a heritage from Althea Gibson, whose frank faith in professionalism helped open the door so all her sisters could make a living.