Editor Emma Ballard reviews Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson by Ashley Brown

A book about a tennis star may seem like an odd addition to a website that focuses on women’s golf but Althea Gibson was so much more than a multiple grand slam winning champion.

Serving Herself – The Life and Times of Althea Gibson written by Ashley Brown was released last month and we were lucky enough to be sent a copy to read and review.

I have always enjoyed watching and following a wide range of sports. I played a lot of tennis as a junior, more tennis than golf, and after many years have taken it back up recently. Not that you needed to know this information but it does explain why I was looking forward to reading this book

Althea Gibson was a long, long way before my playing days and I have to confess that I didn’t know much about her. This made the book even more interesting to read, plus what really intrigued me was how a professional sports woman switched from tennis to golf.

That’s right, Althea Gibson was the first Black player on the LPGA Tour, turning professional in 1963 when she was 36-years-old.

A comprehensive and in-depth biography of Althea Gibson

The book is the first one written by Ashley Brown who is an Assistant Professor and the Allan H. Selig Chair in the History of Sport and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Brown is an expert on sport history, women's history, and African American history.

I won’t lie, the book is a long read. Hence the reason I am a little late writing this review. The in-depth and comprehensive nature of this biography makes for a fascinating read about a woman who was at the forefront of women’s sport. But at a time when she constantly faced obstacles, racism, and less opportunities due to the colour of her skin.

Looking at her golf career specifically, there is a whole chapter devoted to her pursuit of being the best woman golfer in the world.

As you will already know, at the time the LPGA was the only professional sports organisation for women, offering regular tournaments, prizes, and purses. By playing on the golf circuit, Gibson could do what she had always wanted, to play sports for money.

There is also some insight into African Americans’ relationship with golf, the last American sport to admit Black people at elite level.

Black women had played golf across America for decades, forming clubs of their own and competing in events organised by the United Golfers Association (UGA), which established a women’s division in 1930.

Despite this, Black women still faced sexism and barriers to being made to feel as if they fully belonged in the association. Gibson earned positive press in the African American media as she embarked on her golf career.

Coming to golf too late

You will have to read for yourself but unfortunately, it seems that Gibson came to golf too late in her career to really have the impact that she had hoped for.

I did a little research after reading the book and came across this quote from Gibson which summed up perfectly why her transition from tennis to golf had been so difficult.

Asked which of her games, tennis or golf is tougher, former Wimbledon ladies' champion Althea Gibson declared:

"Once you've learned to play tennis, things come automatically. You don't have to think too much...you just react. But there are so many things happening in golf that you have to think all the time."

Althea Gibson, Ireland's Saturday Night, 22nd December 1973

If you’re a tennis fan as well as a golf fan or someone who is interested in women’s sport and the women who have played a vital role within this space, then this book is a must read.

Until a couple of months ago, I didn’t know that much about Althea Gibson, which I now feel embarrassed about. What an amazing athlete, sportswoman and trailblazer.

Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson

Here’s what the publisher says…

Using previously unpublished sources and new archival material, Serving Herself reveals the rise and fall of the trailblazing, unorthodox and fiercely independent sports icon, Althea Gibson (1927-2003), the first Black player to win a Wimbledon singles title.

From her start playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem as a young teenager to her eleven Grand Slam tennis wins, as well as her professional golf career, Althea Gibson was a surprising figure, resistant to fulfilling expectations placed on her, making her one of the most famous sportswomen of the 20th century.

During her unprecedented athletic career, she was the first African American to win titles at the French Open, the US Open, and Wimbledon, and the first Black player on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour. Gibson was a foundational figure in women’s sports, praised by Serena Williams for “pav[ing] the way for all women of color in sport”.

Throughout her life Gibson continuously negotiated the expectations of her supporters and adversaries. An incredibly talented, ultra-competitive, and not always likeable athlete, Gibson wanted to be treated as an individual first and foremost, not as a member of a specific race or gender. Her bucking of conventional social norms made her personal life the subject of constant scrutiny and rumours.

In this compelling life and times portrait, Ashley Brown narrates the public career and private struggles of this complex, unorthodox and courageous woman, who satisfied her own needs and simultaneously set a pathbreaking course for Black athletes.

Published on February 7, 2023 in hardback. RRP £20. Available from all good bookshops and Amazon.