Tennis was a game devised for European royalty, and those who played it, even in the United States, acted as though they represented royalty, the “civilized” and “cultured” of American society, without ever stopping to think about how systemic discrimination based on race could be civilized or cultured. Still, the lords and ladies of the American court were in a snit, for a commoner from a South Carolina plantation and a Harlem ghetto was about to enter their hallowed grounds. It’s easy to envision members of the West Side Tennis Club nailing down anything that could conceivably be carried off during the U.S. Nationals fortnight, but at least Althea [Gibson], and black America, would no longer be denied the opportunity.
“In many ways, it’s even a tougher Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson’s when he stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ dugout,” one New York newspaperman wrote. “It’s always tougher for a woman.” Without question, Althea faced enormous pressure while making the trek via subway to Forest Hills from the Harlem brownstone she shared during the fortnight with Rhoda Smith, another ATA friend, for a history-making debut at the grass-court tournament. Playing not only for herself but also for “the race” could make even the most solid player skittish. Yet Althea seized the moment, easily dismissing her first-round opponent, Barbara Knapp of England, 6-2, 6-2.
The victory set up an intriguing second-round match against Louise Brough, the three-time defending Wimbledon champion, the 1947 U.S. Nationals champion, and a three-time U.S. runner-up. Brough (as in rough) had also won every U.S. Nationals doubles title since 1942 and the three previous Wimbledon doubles trophies with her partner Margaret Osborne.
Those unfamiliar with Althea’s serve-and-volley game undoubtedly believed she would have her lunch handed to her by the formidable Brough. But the match turned out to be fiercely contested. Only several thousand people could view the action live, and tennis was not a television sport in 1950. Even most spectators at the West Side Tennis Club did not see the match because of the USLTA’s curious decision to stage it on an outer court, well removed from the clubhouse. Indeed, more spectators could watch a doubles match involving Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s dance partner, than Gibson vs Brough.
Play began under an ominous sky with the threat of a thunderstorm. After an understandably nervous Althea dropped the first set, 1-6, she harnessed her emotions and power to take the second set, 6-3. Althea’s shots crackled from the forehand and backhand wings. With strong serves followed quickly by decisive volleys at the net, her style of play, particularly in 1950, had more in common with the men’s game. Running back and forth and side to side, she covered the court better than any of the other women. But her strokes were not as technically proficient or consistent as those of Brough, Shirley Fry, Doris Hart, or Nancy Chafee, the top white stars in the sport. Althea had a tendency to hit at three speeds: hard, harder, hardest. Hitting with slice to keep the ball low, or using topspin to elicit a higher bounce and confound an opponent were not yet part of her repertoire. Further, Althea did not yet have the advantage of regularly competing against the top white players to gain a measure of their games while improving her own. That Althea played Brough to a standstill after two sets and the first twelve games of the final set was an accomplishment in itself.