‘The Match’: How two outsiders changed the face of women’s tennis
As of this writing Serena Williams is advancing toward another Wimbledon final and, perhaps, a third straight ladies’ singles championship. With the domination of the women’s tennis circuit in recent years by Serena and her sister Venus Williams, it has become increasingly difficult to remember that not that long ago black athletes were considered outcasts on the hallowed courts of the great tennis stadiums.A new book, “The Match,” by Boulder-based journalist Bruce Schoenfeld takes us back to 50 or so years ago, when a Harlem teenager named Althea Gibson was breaking down the doors of discrimination that fronted tennis clubs throughout the United States and Europe. The timing of the book’s release – coinciding with the matches at Wimbledon, which will lead into the Olympics and then the U.S. Open in September – could not be better. It is a great summer read, one that gives an historical perspective to women’s tennis and its evolution through today.
While “The Match” chronicles the life and times of Gibson, who won five major singles titles in her career, it is really the tale of two outsiders, one an African-American, the other a white Jew from North London, who, after forging a friendship, teamed up to win the ladies’ doubles at Wimbledon in 1956. The title serves a dual purpose: setting up the climactic doubles final and, more importantly, defining the relationship between Gibson and Angela Buxton, two athletes who were as different as the color of their skin.Gibson, raised on 143rd street in Harlem, was a natural athlete. Tall, well coordinated and aggressively ambitious, she excelled at every game she played, including tackle football. A few lucky breaks led her from the playgrounds and paddle-tennis courts of upper Manhattan to the tutelage of some of the most senior members of the American Tennis Association (ATA).– see Match on page B29– continued from page B3
The ATA had been founded in 1916 and was essentially the governing body of the black tennis establishment; it would serve as the launching pad for Gibson’s integration into major tournament tennis. Gibson took raw talent and a self-assured – some would say arrogant – view of herself and used them as the foundation for a career during which she would win back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open Titles in 1957 and 1958. Her counterpart in the book and friend in life, Buxton had a much different upbringing – and not nearly the talent or confidence that marked Gibson. The granddaughter of Russian Jews, Buxton spent the war years as a young girl in exile in South Africa where, as a child, she became aware of the way that blacks and whites held different positions in society.Her father, Harry Buxton, made a gambling fortune that he parlayed into a larger one, helping to rebuild postwar Great Britain. He spared no expense in helping the young Angela reach her dreams as a tennis player. That financial advantage, which, for example, enabled her to travel to America so she could play with the best players in Los Angeles, helped mold Angela into a player who could compete in the upper echelons of the women’s game.
Schoenfeld weaves in and out of the players’ lives, depicting how the two benefited from the help of others, persevered despite setbacks and eventually paired as doubles partners to win on Centre Court in the world’s most important tennis venue. While he could have belabored the obvious angle, that these two were social outcasts who intended to overthrow the mores of the tennis establishment, Schoenfeld more interestingly focuses on the internal struggles that Gibson and Buxton dealt with in their careers.Recent sports biography has been an uncomfortable genre, either delving into the seamier details of sports stars’ dark sides or simply rehashing careers in starry-eyed homage. But with the success of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” a new genre of sports book has evolved. “The Match,” like “Seabiscuit,” tells a story about people – the good and the bad – who lived in a different time and place. It contextualizes the history of an era and uses that history as a tableau for bringing characters to life.While occasionally overly detailed, Schoenfeld’s command of language and unique sentence structure not only show him to be a gifted writer but they also make reading “The Match” an enjoyable exercise. The book takes us to a different time, the 1950s, and to many different places: Harlem, South Africa, Los Angeles and the capitals of Europe. It introduces us to long-forgotten tennis champions, like Doris Hart, Louise Brough and Shirley Fry, and gives perspective on the way life was for athletes before money changed the game, for better and worse.But mostly “The Match” tells the story of a friendship between two unlikely people that stood the test of time. And that is what makes it a timeless read.
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