NEW YORK -- A stadium full of tennis fans swayed and sang
along as Aretha Franklin belted out the familiar refrain of her
Respect was what black tennis players were denied before the
late Althea Gibson broke the color barrier. Respect is what Gibson
demanded with her historic championships a half century ago.
Franklin and nearly two dozen other pioneering black women were
a formidable presence Monday at opening night of the U.S. Open.
They came together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gibson's
1957 title at the U.S. National Championships, the forerunner to
the Open, when she became the first black player, male or female,
to win the tournament.
"It's a wonderful, magnificent group of women," Franklin said
later of her fellow honorees, who wore broad grins as they clapped
along behind her during the performance.
After the ceremony, two more women embodied the doors Gibson
opened. The ensuing matches on the main court featured Venus and
Serena Williams. The sisters narrated the video that opened the
tribute, describing the glamorous lives they've been able to enjoy
and contrasting that with Gibson, who "toiled in isolation."
"It was amazing, just the energy of all the smiles, the well
wishes," Venus Williams said of coming onto the court and seeing
all the honorees. She beat Kira Nagy in straight sets.
"Just the power of the spirit in Althea, the things she went
through," she said, "and knowing it's people like her that gave
us an opportunity to be here today."
"The Cosby Show" star Phylicia Rashad hosted the ceremony,
which included Gibson's induction into the U.S. Open Court of
Champions. Rashad noted how appropriate it was that the event took
place on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National
Tennis Center -- facilities named after two other tennis pioneers.
King and Ashe's wife and daughter attended the event, as did
Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's widow. New York mayors past and
present David Dinkins and Michael Bloomberg spoke. Dinkins, a good
friend of Gibson's, described the social context of her
accomplishments. Bloomberg called the Harlem native "one of the
city's legendary athletes."
A video recapping Gibson's life included commentary from
Dinkins, King, tennis analyst Bud Collins, Rashad's former co-star
Bill Cosby, Serena Williams and fellow player James Blake.
One by one, the trailblazing women were introduced. The list
included former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun; ex-WNBA star
Cynthia Cooper; singer and songwriter Roberta Flack; Winter
Olympians Vonetta Flowers and Debi Thomas; tennis player Zina
Garrison; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison; BET co-founder Sheila Johnson;
and Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
At the end, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
Each woman received a Tiffany charm bracelet and a commemorative
"It's a room full of greatness," Thomas said before the
ceremony. "You walk in, you're just amazed that you're included in
such an elite group. These are all people that they put their mind
to do something special. They didn't let people discourage them."
The figure skater turned doctor, the first black woman to win a
medal at the Winter Olympics, starts a new job Tuesday replacing
knees and hips in Champaign, Ill. She always gets excited to see
Jemison, the first black woman in space, whom she first met at
Thomas' graduation from Stanford. Thomas has always dreamt of being
Franklin, a huge tennis fan who makes herself tea to drink while
watching Wimbledon each year, was thrilled to meet Braun and
Joyner-Kersee. She never had the chance to meet Gibson, but Flack
"She did it with passion, which is what I'd like to think I do
with music," said Flack, the first person to win back-to-back
Grammys for Record of the Year. "I think that's the reason I'm
still performing and writing and recording, because there's a
passion. Her game, she played it with all her heart."
Friends and admirers hoped Monday's ceremony would ensure
Gibson's triumphs wouldn't be lost to history. Her lack of renown
was starkly illustrated when three-time defending men's champ Roger
Federer was caught off-guard when asked what he knew about Gibson
after his first-round match Monday.
"Nothing, to be honest," he said. "It's before my time. Isn't
much I can really say about it. I don't know, I'm sorry."
But others of his time know what she did and what she meant.
Serena Williams grew up reading books about Gibson.
"A lot of people don't know who she is," she said after
beating Angelique Kerber in straight sets. "They always say,
'Arthur Ashe, Arthur Ashe.' People forget that Althea Gibson was
actually years ... before Arthur Ashe. It's important to have
nights like this so you can teach young people so they know who