It happened today - July 6, 2015
On July 6 1957, early in Eisenhower’s 2nd term, Althea Gibson became the first black to win a singles title at Wimbledon, 18 years before Arthur Ashe would defeat Jimmy Connors to become the first black male singles champion there.
Forget the Williams sisters; this was in an era of wooden rackets and long rallies, not graphite alloy and crushing serves. I actually prefer the older game; Connors-McEnroe marathons with incredible recoveries, between-the-legs shots and preposterous ingenuity are my idea of tennis. But never mind that.
Right now I want to talk about Althea Gibson. Actually I want to quote her.
She’s worth talking about because she was a remarkable person, athletically and otherwise. Born in 1927 in South Carolina and raised in Harlem, she won 56 tennis singles and doubles titles including 11 major ones, then gave up amateur tennis after repeat wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1958, toured with the Harlem Globetrotters (playing exhibition tennis, not basketball), joined the LPGA in 1964 as the first black to do so and played professional golf until 1971, in which year she was voted into the National Lawn Tennis Association Hall of Fame, and later became New Jersey’s commissioner of athletics from 1975 to 1985.
She died in 2003, 46 years after making history under Eisenhower and just five years shy of Barack Obama’s election. If you want to focus on race. Which is understandable given her circumstances. But it’s not really why I bring her up.
I bring her up because of one sentence she once uttered that, it seems to me, explains her success in the face of the particular as well as general challenges she faced. Remember, it’s hard enough to win Wimbledon without also facing barriers of racial prejudice. And it doesn’t just explain her success. It points the way for the rest of us.
That one sentence is “The loser says it may be possible, but it’s difficult; the winner says it may be difficult, but it’s possible.” She said a lot of other good things too (including “Being champion is all well and good, but you can't eat a crown.”) And she did a lot of amazing things. She lived a long and remarkable life. But for all of that, and recognizing that the words resonate because she walked the talk, I always treasure that line, which I heard once uttered on some otherwise long forgotten late night TV show.
It perfectly sums up the attitude everyone needs to succeed at what they should be doing.