By GEORGE VECSEY
Sports of The Times
September 9, 2007
Exactly 50 years ago yesterday, Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win the American tennis championship, receiving a trophy from Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
It was her second major celebrity encounter of the season. In early summer she had received the Wimbledon trophy from none other than Queen Elizabeth — not a bad season for a woman from uptown.
After winning in America, Gibson spoke from her heart and from her pocketbook, saying, “After all, I’ve got to start earning a living,” a reference to the prevailing pretense of amateurism, with its meager under-the-table payoffs.
Now, 50 years later, Gibson’s spiritual descendants have been earning a living at the tournament, now known as the United States Open — open referring to the coffers.
It is fair to say that Gibson, who died in 2003 at age 76, would recognize as her spiritual heirs not only the African-American sisters Serena and Venus Williams, but also the trim Justine Henin and the husky Svetlana Kuznetsova, who were to meet in the women’s final at the Open last night.
The presence of a Belgian and a Russian surely caused conniptions for CBS, which would have much preferred to show the two American sisters or the glamorous and don’t you forget it Maria Sharapova from that posh Russian tennis resort of Bradenton-on-Gulf.
None of them were available, having lost in the tournament that would pay $1.4 million to last night’s winner — a full $1.4 million more than Gibson earned exactly half a century ago. Henin had already earned $2,716,410 this year, while Kuznetsova had earned $1,167,109.
Gibson’s spiritual daughters run in all sizes and shapes, colors and humors, running into various expectations in this theoretically more enlightened age. The Williams sisters annoy some people with their self-preoccupation, but then again Henin turns off some fans because of her tense demeanor and a few past examples of gamesmanship, the type that made icons of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Can’t please everybody.
Gibson ran into the perceptions of her own generation. After her great triumph in 1957, The New York Times used words like “lithe” and “muscular” and “saunters.” She was said to display “little emotion” and demonstrated a “powerful net attack” and was said to be “too strong” for her opponent in the semifinal, Dorothy Knode, who was described as “tenacious.”
These days it is somewhat more acceptable for Henin to be a driven jock with a killer one-handed backhand. Looking like a waif with her oversized ball cap and rather spartan outfit, Henin whacked sister Serena in the quarterfinals and sister Venus in the semifinals.
Half a century past the time when Gibson expressed gratitude for being allowed into the white enclave, the Williamses behave exactly as they want, even if they are criticized for it. Serena was a tad grumpy after her loss to Henin but no more than Andy Roddick was after losing yet again to Roger Federer one night later. Apparently, white men still get more leeway in the churlishness department.
After losing to Henin on Friday, Venus answered all the questions peppered at her by reporters about the trainer’s visit late in the match as well as her moments of lethargy. Her family is saying she may have anemia and they may have to check it out, but Venus did not push any alibis.
In this multicultural age of tennis, the tone is also set by people from different lands. On Sept. 11, 2004, two Russian finalists in prime time, Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva, mourned violence in both nations.
“Stay together and battle terrorism,” Dementieva told the crowd, referring to the horrors in the United States in 2001 as well as the more recent massacre of innocents at a school in Beslan, Russia, on Sept. 3, 2004.
In this Open, three of the most charismatic figures have come from war-ravaged Serbia. Novak Djokovic has not only been hilarious in his imitations of his peers but has been thoughtful in interviews, as have the two vanquished Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.
With her warm smile, Jankovic captivated the crowd by applauding a few great shots by Venus, who beat her in the quarterfinals. Later, Jankovic said: “I think you have to have fun sometimes on the court. I don’t think you have to always be so serious like some of the players are. You have to enjoy it.”
Gibson might recognize Venus Williams’s stoic refusal to go easily in several taut matches. Asked if she had faith in her ability to bounce back, Venus said quickly, “Always.”
Questioned about her health on Friday, Venus said: “I don’t see any unfortunate circumstances in anything in life. I just feel fortunate to be here.” Going into this Open, Venus had career earnings of $17,801,117, a heritage from Althea Gibson. With her frank faith in professionalism — not that she ever made much money for herself — Gibson opened the door for all her sisters to make a living.