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Before Venus and Serena, Tennis Had Althea Gibson

A new book revives the reputation of tennis’s first Black star.

Althea Gibson, in action at Wimbledon in 1957.

Althea Gibson, in action at Wimbledon in 1957.

Photographer: Bettmann/Getty Images

A Black tennis player at the top of her game challenges an umpire’s calls during a tournament and the backlash is swift. Immediately after the match, an Australian newspaper runs a cartoon depicting the athlete as a hulking, animal-like crybaby, exaggerated lips, pacifier and all. This is 2018, and the player in question is Serena Williams.

But the story could’ve just as easily appeared in Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson (Oxford University Press, $30, Feb. 7), a biography of an 11-time Grand Slam winner whose elite career stretched from 1946 to 1958. The book lays out an uncannily similar incident in the lead up to Gibson’s first women’s singles championship at Wimbledon in 1957. The cartoonist “exaggerated the size of her lips, which he pushed forward into a pout,” gave her “shifty” eyes and depicted Gibson speaking in dialect.