Mention pioneering black athletes, and many people think of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
But tennis legends Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were trailblazers, too.
“Althea Gibson was the most competitive person I ever met…. Arthur’s intention was helping humanity,” said Leslie Allen, a former top-ranked tennis player who now makes her home in Morristown.
Allen and Morris Township resident Kyle Copeland-Muse, who was a successful pro doubles player, share memories of their heroes in a Black History Month special, Althea and Arthur, which premieres on the CBS Sports Network at 9 pm this Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.
Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe didn’t just change the sport of tennis. They changed the world.
‘Althea and Arthur’ explores their stories and lives, which ended in dramatically different circumstances, on Monday on CBS Sports Network. pic.twitter.com/Qmd0vAs4L9
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) February 12, 2019
Raised in Harlem, Gibson won titles during the 1950s in the American Tennis Association–the sport’s equivalent to baseball’s Negro Leagues–before emerging as the first African American to win Wimbledon and the French and U.S. opens. She turned pro in 1959, had a brief singing career, and made more history as the first black woman to compete on the pro golf tour.
Gibson later served as New Jersey’s state athletic commissioner. Beset by financial hardships and health problems, she died in East Orange in 2003.
A star at UCLA, Ashe became the first black man to win a Grand Slam title with his 1968 victory at the U.S. Open. He added Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, co-founded a union for male tennis pros, and was a commentator and columnist.
The first black millionaire in tennis, Ashe supported many charitable and humanitarian causes, establishing tennis programs for disadvantaged kids and campaigning against apartheid. He died in 1993 at age 49 from AIDS, which he blamed on a tainted blood transfusion after heart surgery.
In interviews with MorristownGreen.com, Allen and Copeland-Muse, who are African Americans, described two towering figures who inspired them in different ways.
‘HER WORDS CARRIED WEIGHT’
Gibson taught Copeland-Muse to savor her achievements on the tennis court.
“Her words carried weight,” said the Montclair native. As a young player, Copeland-Muse downplayed a victory in a black tournament, hesitating to hoist the trophy presented by Gibson.
“You raise that thing over your head, and be proud!” Gibson instructed her.
Allen’s interest in a tennis career started relatively late, when she transferred from Carnegie Mellon University to the University of Southern California, where she was a walk-on to the nation’s top-ranked college team.
As a pro, she felt fortunate just to make the draw for tournament play…until she trained with Gibson, who took note of Allen’s rangy physique.
“With your wingspan, you need to think about winning tournaments,” Gibson told Allen.
And so she did. A pro from 1978 to 1988, Allen attained a ranking of 17th in the world.
Although Gibson was allowed to compete against white players, racism was omnipresent. At the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, she had to enter the clubhouse via a back door, and she was not permitted to dine with her white competitors, Allen said.
Years later, Allen and Copeland-Muse would experience snubs of their own during tours. Local families housed players in those days. In Birmingham, Ala., in 1983, nobody wanted to lodge the blacks, Copeland-Muse said.
“A nice family heard me question this, and the woman said, ‘I’ll take all of them.’”
Allen related similar hesitancy by host families in Las Vegas–where she was the No. 1 seed in a tournament–and Florida. There, after accommodating black players overnight, the lady of the house told them to clear out, suddenly announcing that her husband had lupus.
In England, a hostess complimented the black players on their command of English. “She had only seen black people in movies playing Stepin’ Fetchit,” said Allen, now a realtor and life coach for athletes.
The Cleveland native used to relish taking her daughter to the swimming pool at the famed Longwood Cricket Club near Boston–and watching the white children evacuate as if a sea monster had entered the water.
Still, Allen said, such indignities were “10 times less than what Althea and Arthur had to deal with.”
Gibson’s later years were tinged with bitterness; recognition proved more elusive than for Ashe, according to both women.
“She was a champion, but nobody treated her like a champion. There were no endorsements. She had to go out and get a job. She was a proud champion and knew what she accomplished,” Allen said.
“She came along a little too soon to enjoy the benefits of what she had done,” agreed Copeland-Muse, who played on the women’s pro circuit from 1982 to 1989, rising to No. 36 in the world with doubles partner Lori McNeil.
An All-American at Pepperdine University, Copeland-Muse has worked in communications and coached women’s tennis at St. John’s University. She recently launched an interior design business. Allen, whom she regards as an “older sister” and a tennis inspiration, was her first client. They are planning a podcast together.
‘HE WAS A GREAT HUMAN BEING’
The retired athletes esteemed Ashe as a role model off the court.
“Every time you talked to Arthur, it was never about tennis. He talked about religion, travel, apartheid….HIV was just another thing for him to study. To me, he was just an extraordinary person, an amazing human being,” said Copeland-Muse, adding that Ashe’s memoir, Days of Grace, should be required reading in high schools.
Allen knew Ashe from an early age. Leslie’s mother, a former tennis player now known as the actress Sarallen (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Wire), was “Aunt Sarah” to Ashe.
During his Army days was at West Point, he sometimes stayed with the family in Westchester, Allen said.
A generous man, Ashe often took the black players to dinner at the French Open, Allen remembered.
“Was he the best tennis player in the world that he could be? No. But he was a great human being,” Allen said.
Who was the best player ever?
Roger Federer gets both ladies’ vote as the top male.
Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are Copeland-Muse’s all-time picks on the women’s side. King and Arthur Ashe tackled life in similar fashion: “When they saw a need, they addressed it…they did stuff.”
For King, that meant starting the Women’s Tennis Association, World TeamTennis and Womensport magazine…and kicking the behind of former No. 1 player and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”
(And the 2017 movie of the same name? “For us it was like looking at an after-school special. But it was entertaining,” Copeland-Muse said.)
To Allen, Althea Gibson forever ranks as the greatest woman to swing a tennis racket. Fiercely competitive–“she would challenge you to anything”–Gibson dominated opponents in a manner that inspired Billie Jean King.
And Gibson earned a ticker tape parade at a time when country clubs still made her enter through back doors.
“There’s so much to learn from her: Humble beginnings, a high school dropout, winning and defending titles, and a singer!” Allen said. “And then she did it again in golf. Who does that?”