THE SHOW "American Masters: Althea"

WHEN | WHERE Friday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Born to a South Carolina sharecropper who wished he'd had a son instead, Althea Gibson was raised to be a champion. She'd become one, in tennis, where she would win Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals (precursor to the U.S. Open) in the same years. Interviews include former New York Mayor David Dinkins (who knew her growing up in Harlem), Wimbledon champions Dick Savitt and Billie Jean King (who also serves as one of the film's executive producers) and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, widow of Arthur Ashe.

MY SAY Althea Gibson was the first African-American to win Wimbledon, the first to win the U.S. Nationals and the first black member of the LPGA. But behind those "firsts," there is -- as you might imagine -- quite a story: of race, privation, love, destitution and triumph.

What's missing, ever so slightly, is Gibson herself. She refused to cast herself in one of the greatest dramas in U.S. history -- civil rights -- as Jackie Robinson had done, and Muhammad Ali would do. As a result, she never quite became the symbols they were to become. That was apparently her choice. "Race was never an obstacle" in her career, she once told the press.

 "Althea," of course, establishes that wasn't even remotely true.  

 By disposition, Gibson was private; by temperament, driven and proud. She lived in a country where Jim Crow laws were enforced (in the south), and played in a sport where wealthy whites predominated. She prevailed over all obstacles -- and then decamped for France, and later joined the LPGA.  "Althea" also hints (in comments by King and a friend, former tennis pro Arthur Carrington) that Gibson was bisexual, which -- if true -- she also sought to hide. Carrington says here that "the stream will always show the source," and in Gibson's case, the source was complicated, indeed.

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There's much to commend in this moving portrait, but perhaps most of all, it's long overdue. Gibson spent the rest of her life, quietly, in Newark -- largely overlooked or even unknown to a modern culture that forgets too easily, or is simply overwhelmed by the background noise it forces itself to listen to. "Althea" cuts through that noise like one of her forehand volleys, and ends up proving that its subject was an important symbol after all.

GRADE A