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United States Tennis Association to honor Althea Gibson with a statue

The two-time U.S. national champion will be immortalized at US Open site

One question sat on the mind of 50 tennis fans in Wilmington, North Carolina, so much so that each of those people penned letters to turn that question on Katrina Adams, “When is the United States Tennis Association going to recognize Althea Gibson?” A young fan from the youth program One Love, a chapter in the USTA Foundation’s National Junior Tennis and Learning network, wrote to the USTA president that even if it was a hot dog stand, something at the site of the US Open should be named in honor of Gibson, the first black winner of a Grand Slam title.

“I was like, it’ll definitely be something more substantial than a hot dog stand,” Adams joked.

The USTA voted unanimously at its Dec. 2 board meeting to honor Gibson with a statue at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, the home of the US Open. Gibson won the 1957 and 1958 U.S. National Championships.

“This is something that I have wanted for a while, something that I have floated within my office, as to getting something named after Althea,” Adams said. “Recognizing for me as an African-American woman and recognizing what Althea stood for and understanding that she truly broke the color barrier for tennis — a lot of people think it’s Arthur [Ashe], but it was Althea 11 years before him.”

A budget has not been set, nor has the artist been selected. Adams doesn’t believe the statue will be finished by this year’s Open, which falls on the 60th anniversary of Gibson’s final Grand Slam title.

“It’s about time, jolly good,” said Angela Buxton, Gibson’s friend and doubles partner. “I think to more than 50 percent of the people it’ll be news, because certainly in my country [England] they don’t remember her at all.

“She did a great deal to improve the place of black people. … Althea with her two ticker-tape parades still wasn’t allowed into a hotel where the whites sleep or a water fountain to drink where whites drink, but she helped to break that down.”

Buxton questioned why a stadium or court wasn’t named after Gibson. Adams said the USTA has a policy that blocks naming another court after a player. And its agreement with the city of New York bars it from renaming Louis Armstrong Stadium, which the organization inherited from the World’s Fair. The main stadium is named after Ashe.

Billie Jean King, who has been advocating for Gibson to be honored for 30 years, worked closely with Adams to see this through.

Adams, the first black president of the organization, invited King to attend the group’s meeting in New York. The 12-time Grand Slam singles champion made a five-minute presentation imploring them to honor Gibson with a statue. What she had to say didn’t need to be long, King said, it just had to move the needle.

“I said, ‘She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis and she needs to be appreciated for it, and she’s not,’ ” King said. “I wanted something there that was permanent. I didn’t want just a one-day highlight.”

After returning to her car, Adams called to inform King that it took only a matter of minutes for the approval to come down.

“I stood on her shoulders,” King said. “We always stand on the shoulders before us. … I’m really excited. We’re going to get this done.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.