The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center honored trailblazing tennis legend Althea Gibson with a sculpture on Monday morning.
Fellow tennis great Billie Jean King, 2017 U.S. Open women’s singles champion Sloane Stephens and USTA President and Chairman of the Board Patrick Galbraith were among the notables gathered for the unveiling on the grounds.
“Althea Gibson’s talent, strength and unrelenting desire to achieve made her a great champion,” Galbraith said during the ceremony. “She made tennis a better place, by opening doors and opening minds, doing so with grace and dignity. She is receiving a recognition she richly deserves.”
In 1957, Gibson became the first African American tennis player, male or female, to win the title at the U.S. National Championships — now called the U.S. Open. Known for her great talent and greater courage, she overcame many obstacles. In addition to breaking the color barrier in tennis in 1950, she was the first African American to win singles titles at the French Championships (1956) and Wimbledon (1957).
“It’s simple: She’s the first African American to break the color barrier in our sport,” said Katrina Adams, a former USTA chairman. “By doing so, she made it possible for every person of color after her to have a chance to achieve their goals in the sport. This is a tribute that’s long overdue — period.”
Gibson, who died in 2003, won 11 Grand Slam titles in all. She added six doubles crowns to her five major singles crowns. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and was inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions in 2007.
“She’s done so much for tennis, and I think that’s really important for sort of historic figureheads like that to get the recognition that they deserve,” top-seeded women’s singles player and defending champion Naomi Osaka told amNewYork during Friday’s media day.
Created by American sculptor Eric Goulder, the Gibson sculpture features a bust of Gibson. The bust is 3.5 times the size of her actual dimensions, and each of the five granite blocks weighs 2.7 tons. Altogether, the sculpture weighs more than 18 tons. The bust is patinated bronze, made in water-based clay, molded and cast using the lost wax method.
King, herself a revered figure in the sport, spoke about the difficult path Gibson walked as a pioneering African American.
"I think she had such hardship compared to most of us that we can never really — I just try to think about how much loneliness she must have gone through and how much disappointment and frustration she must have gone through," Kind said. "And yet she prevailed. That’s what I always remember in the end: She prevailed.”