NEW YORK – A Who’s Who of black female pioneers was in the hallway inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, including former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, billionaire Sheila Crump Johnson and Tony Award-winner Phylicia Rashad. And despite all their credentials, they all started applauding when Venus Williams walked past on her way to the court. “I wish I had more time to say hello, but center court’s calling,” Williams said. “It’s amazing, more than fantastic. Its very special.”
The women were in the hallway after taking part in an hour-long celebration of Althea Gibson, the daughter of sharecroppers in South Carolina who broke the color barrier at the U.S. Championships (now the U.S. Open) in 1950 and won the title 50 years ago. She was also the first African-American winner at the French Open (1956) and Wimbledon (1957). After that, no black woman won any of those tournaments until Serena Williams took the U.S. Open in 1999 and Venus Williams followed with the Wimbledon championship in 2000.
The sisters followed the ceremony with first-round matches in front of a night-session-record 23,737 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Venus Williams tied her career high with a 129-mph serve in beating Kira Nagy 6-1, 6-2 in 54 minutes, and Serena defeated Angelique Kerber 6-3, 7-5. The Williams sisters each have won one Grand Slam this year, and a combined 14 overall. Their opponents fell to 0-5 in majors.
Zina Garrison, the Fed Cup captain who has known the Williams sisters for 20 years, said success is not all they have in common with Gibson.
“The good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the one thing they’ve done is be true to themselves, and that’s what Althea stood for,” Garrison said. “You look at Venus and Serena, no matter what people throw at them, they’re very comfortable within their skin.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the ceremony, which featured 15 black women, each of whom achieved a first in her field. Former Mayor David Dinkins introduced a video tribute to Gibson, who died of respiratory failure in 2003, and Aretha Franklin belted out “Respect” before Gibson was officially inducted as the 15th member of the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, also was in attendance.
“It was definitely a tough act to follow in a way,” Venus said. “It’s like, ‘OK, Williams can’t lose tonight.’ That was not part of the plan. It was supposed to be an all-American win tonight.” While the Williams sisters were the main attraction, Gibson’s influence was felt throughout the grounds. Eighteen-year-old Atlanta native Donald Young won his first Grand Slam match yesterday afternoon, then talked about writing a biography of Gibson in sixth grade. Another promising black player from Atlanta, 21-year-old Scoville Jenkins, preceded the Williams sisters on the Ashe court, falling in straight sets to top men’s seed Roger Federer.
“Anybody who’s remarkable like (Gibson) probably changed the sport for African-Americans. It’s unbelievable what you have to face,” Jenkins said. “For me to play on this day, it’s very special.” While Venus and Serena were winning, 22-year-old wild card Asha Rolle of Florida knocked off 2006 quarterfinalist Tatiana Golovin, the 17th seed, in three sets at Louis Armstrong Stadium. “It’s a wonderful win for (Rolle), and obviously a great night to do it,” Venus said.
Most impressively for Garrison, all the black women were cheered last night by an audience of all different colors and backgrounds – less than 60 years after Gibson wasn’t allowed to play in the national tournament, and Franklin had to go to grocery stores with her father on the road because she wasn’t allowed in restaurants. “(Gibson) probably died a little bit bitter because she didn’t feel like she got what she deserved,” Garrison said. “(Tonight) she would be extremely grateful and extremely proud. I can hear her saying, ‘Wow, about time.’ ”