Perlman: Coming together for ‘Althea Gibson Way’

Preserving her legacy with street co-naming

By Michael Perlman

[email protected]

Roger Terry, nephew of Althea’s former husband Will Darben with Althea’s great niece Crystal Thorne.

It may be hard to visualize that relatively not too long ago, tennis was a segregated sport, but that largely changed when racial color barriers were broken at the iconic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium.

Althea Gibson (1927 – 2003) became the first African American person to win the U.S. National Tennis Championships title in 1957. At the time, Vice President Richard Nixon presented her with the championship trophy.

Althea Gibson, VP Richard Nixon, Mal Anderson, Forest Hills Stadium, 1957. Courtesy of Archives of the WSTC

She was also the first Black player to win Wimbledon that year and received the Venus Rosewater Dish from Queen Elizabeth II.

Then in 1971, she became an International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee.

On August 25, which would have been her 95th birthday, history was made once again with the co-naming of West 143rd Street between Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards as “Althea Gibson Way.”

Now her legacy will forever be preserved, as New Yorkers and tourists explore a culturally rich New York City landscape.

The location was most ideal, since Gibson and her family lived in a historic building at 135 West 143rd Street.

A block away on 5th Avenue is the 369th Regiment Armory, where she played tennis, and today there are tennis training programs which benefit the community’s youth.

The street co-naming ceremony was heavily attended by family members and friends among fans.

Gibson’s cousin Don Felder had a vision in 2019, and with perseverance, analogous to Althea, it became a reality. He explained, “I had an idea after seeing a cousin of Althea being honored with his name at the intersection of 145th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, ‘The Claude Brown Corner.’ The planning began by contacting the City of New York. The requirements are 100 signatures from residents and businesses on the block and three letters of support. I got support letters from former Mayor David Dinkins, a local church pastor, Whoopi Goldberg and Katrina Adams. The complete package was submitted to Community Board 10. It was approved and a resolution was passed.”

Don Felder holds a photo of Althea Gibson with the Harry C Lee tennis racquet.

Backtracking, Gibson was honored in 2019 with a sculpture near Arthur Ashe Stadium, and she will soon be honored at Forest Hills Stadium during its centennial in 2023, where some of her possessions — including her trophies — will be on display.

Most recently, sports marketing and media specialist Randy Walker republished Gibson’s bio, “I Always Wanted to be Somebody” (1960).

“I would like to see a presidential medal issued to Althea Gibson, as well as see her image on U.S. currency,” Felder said, whose wishes may be granted in 2025 with a commemorative quarter.

Photos courtesy of WSTC

He had much to share about Gibson’s achievements and how it motivates all generations of tennis players following in her footsteps.

“Althea’s perseverance was astounding while realizing the times she played and the racial barriers and obstacles she endured. Althea had to enter from the back of tennis clubs and even change her clothes outside of the clubs before entering, and again leave from the back. At times, she received brutal verbal abuse and attacks, but yet she became the tennis champion of the world who inspired others to persevere in spite of obstacles.”

“I was thrilled,” Felder continued, referencing the moment the sign was unveiled.

“Althea’s nieces came from Virginia to unveil the sign. The drummers did a drumroll as the sign was unveiled and the crowd applauded. My thought is that it has finally been done. After walking the street and getting signatures and letters, we now have ‘Althea Gibson Way’ forever and her legacy lives on.”

A keynote speaker was former USTA President & CEO Katrina Adams.

“It is imperative that we keep her name alive. It’s the next generation that needs to know that before Coco, Venus, Serena, Chanda, me, Lori, Zina and Leslie, was Althea. Why? Because Althea came first,” she said.

Also present was Michael Giangrande, the son of Harry C. Lee & Co.’s vice president.

“They sponsored Althea when no racquet company sponsored Black players,” Felder said. “Michael in his youth would accompany his father to West 143rd Street to visit Althea, and was there after Althea’s win at Wimbledon.” He referenced her greatness.

lthea Gibson’s family who traveled from NY, NJ, Philadelphia, Delaware, VA, NC, SC to honor her.

Roger Terry, Gibson’s nephew, commended her competitiveness in anything, and how she as an older woman would beat him and his friends on basketball and football courts.

“She never wanted to lose in any game,” he said.

Additionally, a young tennis student took the podium and said that when she feels pressure and alone as the only Black girl on the tennis courts, she thinks of Gibson and on whose shoulder she stands on, and she perseveres.

Other speakers included Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Councilwoman Kristen Richardson and representatives of the Police Athletic League.

“Althea learned the game of table tennis on West 143rd Street when the PAL closed the street for recreation for the children,” Felder said.

He introduced his family, whose mothers were in the photo display.

“They were taken in 1957 when Althea returned from her first Wimbledon win,” he continued.

Felder, who holds fond recollections of Gibson, said, “I called her mom and asked if Althea can come to my junior high school in Brooklyn as a guest speaker, and she came. She loved her family and made time to come when we called, even as she traveled the world to play tennis.”

He finds her to be a multi-faceted inspiration.

“Althea was a loving human being. She accepted everyone and enjoyed life. She was more than a champion athlete who excelled in every sport, but was also an actress, singer, and saxophonist, which may be unknown to many. She excelled in anything she did, and I’ve learned that I can do anything that I choose, if I persevere.”

She felt at home at the Apollo Theater, where she won second prize in a singing competition in 1943 and received $10 rather than the promised week of singing engagements, but she did not let it dishearten her.

Felder expanded upon the unknowns. “Althea became friends with John Wayne and William Holden as she acted in ‘The Horse Soldiers’ (1959). She loved to perform while on tennis tours. She played basketball and was a bowler, and was the first Black woman to golf in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She also sang on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ was on ‘What’s My Line?’ and taught tennis to inner city children.”

As Felder toured the grounds and Clubhouse of the West Side Tennis Club, he could feel Gibson’s presence.

Althea in the media display.

“I am in awe that I am walking where she walked and played, gained recognition, and became champion and broke down racial barriers,” he said. “I believe that she is pleased that her family member now sees where she worked and played and loved to be.”

Despite her passing, the public can continue to learn from her accomplishments in the face of adversity.

Felder explained, “Many young people and adults still do not know who Althea Gibson was. She was a great American who overcame many obstacles and became a great ‘Somebody’ as she wrote in her autobiography ‘I Always Wanted to be Somebody.’”

The street co-naming united the community as well as her family, generating a sense of pride, according to Felder. “Althea’s name on the street in Harlem tells other young people from the community that they too can achieve their goals and dreams,” he said.

Celebrity Walk, A Forest Hills Mystery Partially Solved

Since 2015, a dedicated group of preservationists have been searching for long-vanished cement slabs featuring the handprints, footprints, and autographs of tennis and music stars that were once part of Celebrity Walk.
Celebrity Walk was located in front of Forest Hills Inn in Station Square. Before being converted to a co-op, the inn was the center of a classy social life, and Celebrity Walk was the local version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When searches of the tunnel-like Forest Hills Inn basement turned up no results and with no known photos, some people assumed it was just an urban legend.
But rumors circulated that a sidewalk reconstruction led to their relocation. Some people recalled seeing them placed in the inn’s basement in a potentially concealed tunnel for safekeeping, possibly in the late 1970’s.
After intense networking, over a year ago this columnist discovered five Celebrity Walk slabs in a garage at a home near Puritan Avenue and Greenway North. The slabs were left behind by a previous homeowner.
Last Friday, Forest Hills Stadium concert manager Mike Luba and Mitch Cohen, president of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, arrived at the home with a crew. They took the fragile concrete slabs to Forest Hills Stadium, where they will be restored and displayed.
The rescued slabs feature comedian Buddy Hackett, trumpeter Herb Alpert, actor Trini Lopez, director, Woody Allen, and Australian tennis player John Newcombe.
There are more slabs to be discovered, and the goal is to find the full collection. A few years ago, another homeowner donated a slab to the West Side Tennis Club featuring the signatures and handprints of tennis players Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, and Manolo Santana.
“It’s a work in progress and I want to be part of it,” said crew member Wilson Brito. “We’ll get there. We’ll bring all the history back to where it belongs, and once we maintain that we can pass it on to the next generation and let them take care of it.”
Celebrity Walk originated in the mid-1960s and was the brainchild of Mark Fleischman, owner of the famed Studio 54 nightclub. From May 1965 to 1968, he also co-owned the 300-room Forest Hills Inn and adjoining apartments
“I loved coming up with press-generating ideas, including the creation of Celebrity Walk in front of the hotel’s sidewalk cafe,” he said. “Marketing seemed to come easily to me.”
At the time, the inn included cocktail lounges, a formal dining room known as the Windsor Room, sidewalk cafe, the Tea Garden, and four social rooms accommodating 400 guests.
“The Inn was a venerable hotel that looked like an English country manor,” said Fleischman. “It was a real coup when we got Frank Sinatra to put his handprints into a block of wet cement when he headlined the Forest Hills Music Festival at the nearby tennis stadium.
“As soon as other celebrities heard about Sinatra’s handprints and signature, they agreed to be included in our Celebrity Walk when they performed,” he added.
“The Forest Hills Inn has Frank Sinatra’s and Barbra Streisand’s handprints imbedded on their sidewalk pavement, but it had to get them the hard way,” read an article from 1965 in the Long Island Star-Journal. “Both stars agreed to make the imprint, but refused to do it at the sidewalk. So wet cement was sent to both stars, the imprints made, and the hardened blocks were then inserted in the pavement.”
West Side Tennis Club is always looking for items from the club’s long and storied history.
“These past few years, some wonderful items have been donated to the club, both solicited and unsolicited,” read a statement from the club.

If you have historic WSTC/Forest Hills items, email [email protected]

Return of the Davis Cup in Forest Hills

The past decade has been a rebirth for the historic West Side Tennis Club. There was the return of concerts in 2013, a pro tennis event in 2016, and the annual Heritage Day event.
Most recently, the club hosted a Group II playoff series of the Davis Cup by Rakuten. On September 18 and 19, South Africa defeated Venezuela, 4-0. Victories were achieved in singles and doubles by rising Association of Tennis Professionals star
Lloyd Harris, a 24-year-old South African who recently reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals, was victorious in both singles and doubles play.
“The Davis Cup has always been a part of my schedule,” he told the media. “It is obviously very important to represent your country, and get out there and play.
“This is an incredible venue,” Harris said of WSTC. “I learned so much about this venue and its history over the last few days. I’m obviously very, very honored to be playing in a special place.”
Philip Henning of the South African squad called it “honor” to represent his country in Forest Hills.
“We love our sport, and this place is one of the places with the most history for tennis,” he said. “A lot of big names played on this court.”
“As a player, you always dream to be in the historic venues, and the important sites and most famous stadiums and arenas all over the world, and this is one of them,” said Venezuelan Ricardo Rodriguez after his loss to Henning. “Even though I lost, I still feel lucky to be here.”
The Davis Cup was founded in 1900 by Dwight Davis at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston. It originated as a challenge match between the U.S. and the British Isles. Today, it is the largest international team competition with over 120 nations.
“We would love to host more Davis Cup matches or other big pro events,” said Jason Weir-Smith, WSTC’s director of Racquet Sports. “WSTC has proven to be a suitable and enjoyable site for players and fans, with an unparalleled tennis history in the United States.
“With Queens being one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world, Forest Hills would be particularly attractive for national team events or tournaments with popular international tennis stars.” he added.
The Davis Cup was last played in Forest Hills Stadium in 1959. Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Neale Fraser led Australia to a Davis Cup win over the U.S., which was led by Alex Olmedo, Butch Buchholz, and Barry MacKay.
The Davis Cup was last held in Queens in 1981 at the USTA National Tennis Center. A quarterfinals match between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia featured John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl.
Weir-Smith said the public is nostalgic for Forest Hills tennis.
“Those who are perhaps too young to see pro tennis here, have certainly seen videos and pictures that display the majesty, beauty, and history of the club,” he said.
Randolph Walker was the U.S. Davis Cup press officer from 1997 to 2005. The first Davis Cup he attended was in 1981 at the USTA National Tennis Center.
“In a summer that saw Major League Baseball played at the ‘Field of Dreams’ in Iowa, it certainly was special for pro tennis to return to its own Field of Dreams,” said Walker. “So many people could feel the ghosts of tennis champions past.
“That made the event so memorable for all, and will make future tennis events played on that court much more special,” he added.

Pickleball is coming to West Side Tennis Club

Established in 1892, the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) is synonymous with tennis and music history. You may soon be adding the growing sport of pickleball to that legacy.
A new beginner and advanced pickleball camp, customized based on skill level, will take place at WSTC on August 12-13.
“It is amazing that a tennis club with the prestige and history is looking to open its doors to a newer sport like pickleball,” said Frank Milillo, a pickleball enthusiast from Rockville Centre. “This is a great chance to bring more attention to the sport and provide support to the players who want to improve.
“This is the first private tennis club in New York that’s ready to provide pickleball memberships to prospective members,” he added.
Pickleball combines elements of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, and is played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes.
“Most tennis players become very good and competitive very quickly,” said Milillo. “Pickleball is a very social sport.”
Pickleball was invented in a backyard on Bainbridge Island in Washington by former congressmen Joel Pritchard, William Bell, and Barney McCallum after they returned from a golf outing to children complaining about being bored.
“Everyone who is playing it for the first time is amazed when I tell them this sport is over 50 years old,” Milillo said.
Milillo plays on average five times a week.
“A short court and the quick points makes this sport exciting,” he said. “With lots of movement in short bursts, pickleball is an extremely healthy sport. You burn as many calories playing pickleball as you do playing tennis.”
Camp attendees will begin with the essentials, such as learning dink shots, footwork and ball striking, as well as serve, return, and drop shots. The training will be followed by games and matches with expert analysis by pros and an emphasis on strategy and shot selection.
Participants will also have an opportunity to work with WSTC director of Racquet Sports Jason Weir-Smith and Ken Henderson, founder and director of Traveling Pickleball Pros and an IPTPA Level II certified pickleball teaching professional and national medalist.
“I ran a few clinics and we kept the dialog going,” said Milillo. “Then I mentioned the camp and Jason was right on board.
Milillo is confident pickleball has a bright future at WSTC.
“WSTC is the perfect venue for clinics, camps, and tournaments, the options are limitless,” he said. “Ken and Jason have the foresight to embrace the new players, new game, and its popularity.”
Milillo played tennis for most of my life, but took up pickleball after a shoulder injury made tennis a bit of a challenge.
His website at longislandnypickleballpros.com promotes clinics, leagues, and open play opportunities.
“I have over 200 people playing pickleball in Rockville Centre and it’s growing,” he said. “I had over 15 leagues each season.”

Fees for the camp are $395, or $350 if you sign up by July 31. For WSTC members, the cost is $200. For more information, call (718) 268-2300.

Greener horizons at West Side Tennis Club

West Side Tennis Club members and guests were first to play on the newly resurfaced field of eight state-of-the-art grass courts at the iconic Forest Hills club last Friday.
“To have been able to take on a transformational upgrade of our grass courts at this moment in time is a testament to our Board of Governors, our members, and our commitment to our mission,” said club president Monika Jain.
Virginia Wade, who won the 1968 U.S. Open, was a guest of honor.
“I had deja vu watching all these good players out today,” she said. “I know what good grass is like. Grass technology is so sophisticated these days, and it’s so exciting that this club chose to take advice from Wimbledon.
“The WSTC lawns will become the envy of every tradition-loving club and player,” Wade added. “And for those lucky enough to play on them, it will be a blissful experience.”
“My favorite surface in the whole world is grass,” said Rennae Stubbs, a legendary Australian tennis player, coach, and Racquet Magazine podcast host. “It was the first time I ever played here, and it was great to be part of opening the courts for the first time this year. You just have to look around to know you’re in a historic tennis club.”
After WSTC relocated from the Bronx to Forest Hills in 1913, grass was laid for seven courts. The following August, a Davis Cup match would attract an audience of over 12,000, transforming tennis.
The hallowed grounds are where legends like Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Ken Rosewall, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Chris Evert made their mark on the tennis world.
However, the courts were considered past their prime with spongy and bent grass. After Newport’s International Hall of Fame resurrected its turf venue, WSTC leadership was inspired to examine the feasibility of upgrading its grass courts.
The $650,000 project was designed by Tom Irwin Advisors and spearheaded by Ian Lacy, the former head of Great Britain’s Institute of Groundsmanship Professional Services.
Test pits were dug to evaluate layers of soil, and Lacy and his colleagues recommended a plan to replace the grass, upgrade the irrigation system, enhance the underlying dirt by adding a sand mixture for playability and durability, and regrade the courts.
The grass is a modern blend of three varieties of rye, the same kind used at Wimbledon, the Newport Hall of Fame, and London’s Queens Club.
“The new grass courts are much better, since the ball bounces higher and we can rally and really enjoy it,” said longtime club member Juan Reyes. “Before the ball would hardly bounce.”
The upgrades included Wimbledon-style wooden tennis posts with brass winder mechanisms and “West Side Tennis Club” etchings.
“This is one of the most revered sites, as it was the first home of the U.S. Open,” said Frank Milillo, a pickleball ambassador. “The courts have always been top notch, and it’s exciting to see how well the club improved it with a new lawn. This is where the sport grew, and now it’s coming back to its roots.”

End-of-season honors for Knights

The Queens College men’s tennis team earned three of the six All-East Coast Conference spots.
Junior Mariano Bibiloni, sophomore Moritz Borges, and freshmen Tim Ostheimer were named to the squad, while head coach Somadi Druker was named Coach of the Year. 
Druker earned her fifth ECC coach of the year honors as she led the Knights to an 8-7 overall record and 6-0 conference record, which included winning the regular-season championship and a fourth straight conference tournament championship crown.
On the season, the Knights were 8-3 against DII opponents. She led the Knights to their 19th straight consecutive NCAA Men’s Tennis Tournament appearance and sixth under her tutelage.
Druker is ten wins away from the century mark as she takes an overall coaching record of 90-42 into the 2021-2022 season.
Bibiloni finished the year with a 7-5 singles record, including going 6-2 against DII opponents. Playing in the middle of the lineup, the Argentinian native went 3-1 at the number-two spot.
Bibiloni gave the Knights a 3-1 lead in the ECC Final as he defeated St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans Alvaro Barranco in straights set to the score of 6-1, 6-3 as the Knights would go on to clinch their fourth straight conference title.
Borges went undefeated in conference singles play finishing with a 4-0 singles record. The German native finished the season with a 7-4 singles record including going 2-0 at the number-two spot.
Borges saw singles action at five different spots as he produced a 5-1 winning record. In doubles play, Borges finished the season with an 8-6 overall record including a 4-2 mark in conference play.
Borges would finish the season with a three-set victory over Le Moyne Felipe Cruz to the final score of 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tennis East Region Tournament.
In a star-studded lineup, Ostheimer was the Knights’ primary number-one singles competition starter. On April 8, the German native was ranked 48th in the ITA DII Men’s Singles Ranking. He was only one of the two players in the Northeast Region to be placed in the top-50 singles ranking.
After an injury slowed the season down, Ostheimer saw time in doubles competition including finishing the season 2-0 in conference play. Partnering with senior Eduardo Marino at the number-three doubles court, the duo defeated Divison I Niagara University Purple Knights duo of Roberto Vaca/Bruno Goncalves to the score of 6-4.

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