The summer I started playing tennis, I saw Arthur Ashe on TV playing the Wimbledon finals.
I was one of the lucky kids, I kind of stumbled into the sport when I was six. Tennis was not well known in my community in the 1970's but there was a summer program that my brothers were enrolled in through the Martin Luther King Boys Club in Chicago. Every summer they had a different activity and that summer it happened to be tennis.
But I didn’t realize how significant that moment was as a six-year-old. In my tennis programs, we were taught pretty early on about who Arthur Ashe was and who Althea Gibson was, because my main programs were all-black programs. I grew up in Chicago, which is a very diverse city, I just lived in a community which was predominantly black. When I started playing it wasn’t about our color, it was about me going out and playing tennis and having fun with the other girls.
I actually met Althea when I was around 11. She did a clinic at Midtown and I was fortunate enough to be a participant, but again, being so young, I mostly just cared about playing tennis. It was later, during my teenage years, that I started to learn more about who she was and how significant her legacy was to the sport. Then when I started playing on tour, I think then I truly understood the magnitude of what her sacrifices were and how difficult it was for her to be in our sport. And to conquer it.
That’s when Althea Gibson became my biggest inspiration and ever since I’ve made it my mission to continue preserving her legacy for the next generations.
One of my proudest moments came last year, when we unveiled a statue honoring Althea during the US Open. As the USTA’s first black president, it was something that I had advocated for for many years, wanting to recognize Althea in some way at the National Tennis Center.
Towards the end of my last term I was sitting and talking to Billie Jean King, who was an advocate for it as well. She told me, “Kat, when are we going to do something? If we don’t get it done under your leadership, who knows when it will get done.”
Because it’s important to honor those that paved the way and provided an opportunity for you. That’s who Althea Gibson was as the first black player to be able to break the color barrier in our sport. She was the first to play the US Nationals, to play the French Championships, Wimbledon and the Australian Championships. And not only to play those Grand Slams but to win them. She won 11 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed.
And I often wonder, if it wasn’t Althea, then who would have been the next champion? Because it took from 1957 until 1990 to even have another woman of color in the finals of a Grand Slam again.
It’s important for the next generation to know that history, to appreciate those that came before you and understand the challenges and the sacrifice that they made to make it possible for us to do what we do today and for tomorrow.
I know that there was someone, or a group of people, that had allowed me to do what I did by assisting me and pulling me forward, just as there was for Althea. So I really believe that it is my obligation and my duty to do the same, to reach back and pull forward.
Interview by Stephanie Livaudais
Read more in this series:
My Inspiration: Daphne Fancutt by Wendy Turnbull