Tennis courts

How Althea Gibson went from the streets of Harlem to the tennis courts

Althea Gibson learned to wield a racquet – although she was first a paddle racquet – on the streets of Harlem, New York as a young girl. She became the first black player to play and win the singles title at Wimbledon and the US Championships. She recounts in this excerpt below how she specifically went from hitting balls in the streets to hitting them between the lines on the courts in her republished autobiography “I Always Wanted To Be Somebody” (for sale and download here: https: //www.amazon.com/dp/1937559971/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_0B2M2GZEPYW8KJA903MV via @amazon)

The block of 143rd Street where my mom and dad lived was a Police Athletic League play street, which means the police erected wooden barricades at the ends of the street during the day and closed it off at traffic so we can use it as a playground. One of the big games on the street was paddle tennis, and I was the bouldering champion. In fact, I’ve even won medals representing 143rd Street competing against other Harlem gambling streets. I still have them too. I guess I kept all the medals or trophies I ever won.

Paddle tennis is played on a bounded court much like a tennis court, only about half the size. You use a wooden racquet instead of a gut racquet, and you can play with a foam rubber ball or a regular tennis ball. It’s very different from real tennis, and yet it looks a lot like it too. There was a fellow musician, Buddy Walker, who is now known as “the bandleader of Harlem’s Society”, but who at the time didn’t have much work during the summer months and filled while working for the city as a play chief. He was watching me play paddle tennis one day when he suddenly had the idea that maybe I could play regular tennis as well if I had the chance. So, out of the kindness of his heart, he bought me some used tennis racquets for five bucks apiece and got me to start hitting balls against the wall in the Morris Park handball courts. Buddy was very excited about how well I was hitting the ball, and he started telling me how much I would love the game and how good it would be for me to get into it because I would meet a better class of people and have a chance to make something of myself. He took me to his apartment to meet his wife, Trini, and their daughter, Fern, and we all talked about it.

Next thing that happened was Buddy took me to the Harlem River tennis courts at 150th street and 7th ave and had me play a few sets with one of his friends . He always insisted that the way I played that day was phenomenal for a young girl with no experience, and I remember many other players on the courts stopping their matches to look at me. It was very exciting; it was a competitive sport and I am a competitive person. When one of the men who saw me play that first time, a black schoolteacher, Juan Serrell, suggested to Buddy that he would like to try and find a way for me to play at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, to which he belonged, I I was more than willing. The Cosmopolitan is gone now, but back then it was Harlem’s posh tennis club. All the people from the Sugar Hill company were part of it.

Mr. Serrell’s idea was to introduce me to the members of the Cosmopolitan and have me play a few sets with the club’s one-armed pro, Fred Johnson, so everyone could see what I could do. If I looked good enough, maybe some of them would be willing to help pay for a junior membership for me and cover the cost of my lessons with Mr. Johnson. Luckily for me, that’s how it worked. Everyone thought I looked like a really good prospect, and they made a collection and I bought a subscription. I received a regular program of lessons from Mr. Johnson, and began to learn something about the game of tennis.

Althea Gibson in Harlem


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