Tennis grew up as a sport for rich and important people. It was played mostly at private clubs, and major tournaments were for amateurs only. If a player didn’t have money, he or she had to struggle to find a good place to play and good competition to practice against.
So it was big news when the United States Lawn Tennis Association first admitted a poor black player from New York City to the National Championships at Forest Hills in 1950. Her name was Althea Gibson.
Althea was unknown. She had competed in Negro tournaments and National Indoor matches, but had never played in any of the really “important” tournaments. She was uncertain how well she would do against the nationally ranked players.
Althea won her first match, against Barbara Knapp of England, 6-2, 6-2. Then she had to play Louise Brough, a top player who had won three Wimbledon titles, the most important in tennis. The pressure was on. The tennis crowd would soon know how good young Althea Gibson was. When she came out on the court she could hear some of the fans shouting racial insults. She was nervous and played poorly. The first set went to Louise Brough, 6-1.
But Althea wasn’t that bad. In the second set she settled down, winning 6-3. Suddenly spectators from other parts of the Forest Hills club arrived to see if Althea could accomplish a tremendous upset by winning the third set and the match.
Brough won the first three games of the set, but Althea fought back hard. She pulled into a tie, and then went ahead, 7-6. She was just one game away from victory.
Then, at the height of the drama, a summer storm broke. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Everybody ran for shelter as the rain softened the delicate grass courts on which the match was being played. The match was postponed, to be finished the following day.
That was the undoing of Althea Gibson. She had a whole day to think–the pressure she was under as the first black player at Forest Hills, the skill and experience of her opponent, the insults shouted by the fans.
Louise Brough came back the next day full of confidence. Playing a fine, steady game she tied the score, then forged ahead to win the match in three straight games.
Althea Gibson won the tournament at Forest Hills a few years later and she won at Wimbledon, too. But tennis fans still remember the day a thunderstorm robbed her of a great upset.
From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.