The day Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon
Gibson took the women’s singles and doubles crowns in 1957
Althea Gibson wasn’t fazed by the 100-degree heat on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. The top seed wasn’t worried about the 17,000 spectators gathered in the stands. The pressure of becoming the first black tennis player to win the prestigious Grand Slam tournament didn’t concern her either.
After an easy straight-sets (6-3, 6-2) victory over Darlene Hard, whom Gibson had never lost to in four matches, the most challenging part of the competition presented itself. Both Gibson and Hard hesitated as they made their way to the center of the court.
The women stopped 10 feet away from the award presentation table and looked at each other uncertainly. One of 17,000 people in attendance was Queen Elizabeth II. Traditionally a fan of horse racing, Queen Elizabeth had graced Wimbledon for the first time. So of all the things Gibson had done on this day, playing in sweltering heat and shattering the 80-year color barrier at Wimbledon, remembering when she was supposed to curtsy for the queen was the most trying thing she had to do on July 6, 1957, she joked to reporters.
When Gibson finally spoke to the monarch, she said Queen Elizabeth’s first words to her were about how hot it must have been on the court, which Gibson confirmed, adding that she hoped it wasn’t too hot in the stands for England’s head of state.
The pair shared a laugh over the exchange, and photographers captured the moment and that of Queen Elizabeth presenting Gibson, who learned the game in her Harlem, New York, neighborhood and honed it with the American Tennis Association, the trophy.
Winning the women’s singles tournament was the first of three championship matches that Gibson would play on the day. She and Hard teamed up later to take the women’s doubles title, 6-1, 6-2, from Australians Mary Hawton and Thelma Long.
Gibson had a chance for the tournament triple crown by winning the mixed doubles event, but Hard and her partner, Mervyn Rose, bested Gibson and Australia’s Neale Fraser, 6-4, 7-5.
In her brief conversation with the media after her matches, Gibson explained how she was disappointed in the number of times she’d foot-faulted.
“But I was happy about my first volley,” Gibson, a perfectionist, told The Washington Post. “It came off very well.”
Because of the pair’s familiarity, Gibson knew if she had a good day volleying, she could take advantage of Hard’s weak backhand. This helped the 29-year-old jump out to a 4-0 lead in the second set of singles.
Hard, who was visibly nervous and sent several shots into the net, was eventually able to find a steady hand and win the next two games. Gibson refocused and closed out the match by rattling off wins in the next two games.
“Althea didn’t miss a volley,” Hard said. “I usually try to fit in after the first volley. Today, I didn’t get a chance. The first volley after the service was devastating.”