Before a lean man with aviator eyeglasses named Arthur Ashe made a dent in tennis history, before two sisters with rainbow-colored beads adorning their hair dominated women's tennis, a woman raised in Harlem to a sharecropper father blazed the trail for all of them. That woman was Althea Gibson, the African-American who broke the color barrier in international tennis.
Mistaken historians would have you believe Ashe was the first, but even his wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, has to correct people: He was the first African-American male, but not the first African-American. "People forget that Althea came first," Ashe said in "Althea," a documentary on the life of Gibson, an overlooked tennis champion from the 1950s.
Gibson was as long-limbed as Venus Williams and had spunk similar to Serena. She had loud eyes and a slingshot smile. On the court, she was aggressive and had movements that mirrored a dancer's. Sports commentators tossed around phrases like "enormous wingspan," "imposing figure" and "good volley game" when describing Gibson's style of play. Her career was the blueprint for the success of the African-American tennis players we enjoy today.
On Serena Williams' quest for tennis' first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988, she has acknowledged Gibson's contributions and says she plans to watch "Althea," which documents Gibson's early days in Harlem, the rise and fall of her life as a tennis champion, and her tragic death. Directed by Rex Miller, the film aired on PBS on Sept. 4 and was named Best Documentary at the 19th American Black Film Festival (executive producers were Billie Jean King, John Amos and William Ackman).
"I just got it," Serena Williams said to sports columnist Bill Rhoden of the New York Times while pointing to her bag. "I'm looking forward to watching it."
If the interest of a sports icon such as Serena Williams isn't enough of a reason for you to check out the documentary, below are six reasons why everyone should watch "Althea" on PBS on Sept. 13 at 10:30 am EST, or anytime on PBS.com.
1. Tough As Nails
Althea Gibson's fierce on-court demeanor was partly due to a rough upbringing by her father, Daniel. At times he would even physically fight Gibson in an effort to toughen her up. Her aggressive upbringing ultimately made Althea comfortable with embracing her unfriendly manner on the court and in the film she even refers to herself as "mean."
2. Queen Of The Court
In the 1950s, racism stymied African-American athletes from integrating with white Americans in sports. Yet Gibson was able to break into the tennis world. The film highlights how she wasn't an activist athlete and remained mum on most civil rights issues, but she had a burning goal to win. She won numerous events, such as her first major at the 1956 French Open, the ATA Women's Singles Championship and the 1956 International Championship in Monte Carlo. Gibson proved her accomplishments were not a fluke when she won Wimbledon in 1957; Queen Elizabeth handed Gibson the trophy. She would go on to win back-to-back championships at Wimbledon.
3. Bumpy Road To Success
Gibson had a difficult path to tennis success. Lacking a familial support system, she received financial assistance from physicians Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson, two African-American men who coached her and helped refine her tennis skills. The film reveals that boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson realized her potential and mentored her. She was a late bloomer on the collegiate level, receiving her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University, a historically black university.
4. Renaissance Woman
Besides her athletic accomplishments, Gibson had to constantly reinvent herself because she wasn't earning enough income from tennis. A slim Gibson with fire-red lipstick released a musical album on Dot Records in 1959. One scene in "Althea" shows the tennis sensation making an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," belting out "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" while wearing a glamorous dress. Eventually, she became a professional golfer, toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, played the saxophone and had a movie role in a western with John Wayne.
5. In Her Own Lane
The documentary does an excellent job detailing the evolution of Gibson, who struggled to become well-known. She channeled the same abilities that most superstars channel, was meticulous about what she ate, had a laser focus, and spent her free time reading the Bible, autobiographies and detective novels. What makes her story compelling was that she didn't want to represent other African-Americans but wanted only to play tennis -- minus the racial baggage.
6. Fighting Battles On The Court
On Aug. 29, 1950, a young Gibson walked onto the court at Forest Hills, New York, the first African-American player to do so. She challenged Louise Brough -- at that time considered the best player in the country. There were nearly 2,000 spectators, among them hecklers shouted "Beat the n-----!" Gibson blocked them out. When asked about that day, she replied in the film, "I was too arrogant and antisocial. I was not conscious of the racial difference."
Jenisha Watts is a senior researcher at ESPN The Magazine and is working on her first biography. You can follow her sports and pop culture tweets at @iamjournalism.