Celebrating Black Historical past Month • Richard Evans Shares His Night time As Althea Gibson’s Escort At The Wimbledon Ball (From The 10sballs.com Vault)
Editor’s note: Richard, who shares this “gem” with us, is such a beautiful homage to a beautiful woman.
Anna Wintour has been a tennis fan since childhood. Imagine if she ran the WTA … Just say … all 100 best players would be millionaires. (LJ)
It was Charles Wintour, the father of Vogue’s Anna Wintour, who hired me to write Althea Gibson’s copy for the London Evening Standard in 1960, which began my career as a tennis writer.
Wintour was the editor of the Evening Standard at the time, and I’d joined the Queen of the newspaper on Friday, which was played the week before the championships. A brief introduction to the steps of the clubhouse and the following Monday I sat next to this tall, elegant and charming lady in the center court press box.
Althea had enjoyed the company of a different “ghost” over the past year and was well versed in developing quick observations and opinions as the play played out and the editions rolled off the presses. These were the halcyon days of evening newspaper journalism, during which the three London evening newspapers each produced nine issues a day.
One of our first four-column reports related to a promise made by an 18-year-old San Diego girl named Karen Hantze. It was next to “Althea Gibson at Wimbledon talking to Richard Evans” and read in part:
“Karen Hantze demonstrated her potential to the crowd at the Queen’s Club last week by making it through to the finals when she was expected to be defeated by Christine Truman.
“It was clear then that she was going to make a name for herself at Wimbledon … I first saw Karen when I was filming in California in December 1958. She took part in the La Jolla tournament and reached the final – eventually she was defeated by Mrs. Beverly Fleitz, who has now retired from competitive tennis. Despite this final defeat, she hit me straight away as a player with great opportunities. I like their aggressive attitude towards the game. Your only obvious handicap may be a lack of stamina.
“She has the youth on her side, however, and continued championship-level tennis will help develop her game to the standards required by a champion.”
Unsurprisingly, for someone who knew what it took (Gibson had won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958), Althea was right two years later when the American as Karen Hantze Susman took the title 6: 4: 6: 4 -Triumph over Vera Sukova (mother of Helena Sukova) won in the final. To emphasize her pedigree, Karen teamed up with a teenager named Billie Jean Moffitt to keep the double crown they won last year – this time against the fine South African couple Sandra Reynolds and Renee Schuurman.
On that first Wednesday of the championship, my book on yellowed cuttings tells me that Althea Gardnar Mulloy described 1960 as “timeless”. I’m not sure how to describe Gar now as 101! Anyway, Mulloy and Great Dane Kurt Nielsen (the only man to have reached the Wimbledon final twice without a seed) were supposed to play against two of Britain’s best players, Billy Knight and Mike Davies.
Althea wrote, “If Knight beat the unpredictable Nielsen or Davies to do something to Mulloy too, it would be a great tip for British supporters, as I think Britain’s hopes for the future rest largely in these two young men .
“Of the two, Knight has the harder job. Nielsen has taken surprising victories so many times in the past than anyone counted him and now, as one of Wimbledon’s most iconic figures, he has the great benefit of experience on his side.
“At the same time, I can’t rule out the chances of the timeless Mulloy, who caused a sensation last year when he beat his imaginative 18-year-old compatriot Earl Buchholz.”
Althea was forward-thinking again and was supported by the results. A quick look at the men’s 1960 draw courtesy of John Barrett’s great book Wimbledon – The Official History of the Championships, which lists every draw since 1877, shows that Nielsen beat Knight 6-3 in the fifth, after finishing fourth at 11: 9 in those days before the tie-break when ‘old’ Mulloy Davies whipped in straight sets.
Althea’s crystal ball was also clear as he assessed Chuck McKinley’s potential as the muscular little St. Louis teenager was hailed as the next big thing in American tennis. After the No. 1 Frenchman Pierre Darmon beat him 6-1 in the second round in the fifth, Althea wrote:
“Long before Darmon won the match, I had decided that the enthusiastic reports were premature. Chuck still has a long way to go. No doubt McKinley has what it takes to be a good player and he will be well on his way to maturity if he can learn to use his great game with more control.
“An adolescent can often suffer from being placed in the star category before being mentally or physically ready to accept it. Four years ago, the British Christine Truman was the victim of this type of build-up and I that it may have only helped slow down her progress.
“I’m sure McKinley will take a reasonable stance if he’s not up to the standard some people have expected and will return next year after benefiting from such an over-dramatic debut.”
Well, Chuck profited enough to make it to the 1961 final, losing to Rod Laver. After losing to British Mike Hann in the second round, McKinley’s big moment came in 1963 when he won Wimbledon 9: 7: 6, -1, 6-4 defeat to Australian Fred Stolle in the final. The great sadness was that McKinley died of brain cancer in 1986 at the age of 45.
Working with Althea was a wonderful introduction to the world of tennis that would devour my life over the years, and we celebrated our partnership by attending the Wimbledon Ball, which was then held at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane. I suppose a few eyebrows were raised behind our backs as we went down the stairs into the huge ballroom, but no one dared say a word about the unusual sight of a young white reporter escorting a black former champion. The British know when to button their lip.
But it was a wonderful opportunity and I was honored to be her partner. Life should have treated this lovely woman more kindly.