The U.S. Open kicked off Monday in Queens with its signature riveting tennis, overflow crowds and this year something new: a nod toward one of the legends of the sport.
Officials unveiled a sculpture in the likeness of Althea Gibson, the barrier-breaking tennis player who was the first African American to win the tournament.
The sculpture of Gibson — who broke the sport's color barrier in 1950 and went on to win a combined 11 Grand Slam tournament titles — is a bust, 3.5 times life-size, made of patinated bronze and sitting on a granite block outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"Seeing the composition of the players today, the composition of the crowds — they were all doors that Althea knocked down," said tennis fan Mark A. Prince Jr. of East Harlem, who has attended the Open since 1992 and made a point to attend the statue dedication.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King — the tennis center's namesake — was among the giants of the sport who spoke at Monday's dedication.
"She was beautiful and graceful and intimidating all at the same time on the court," said King.
Patrick Galbraith, president of the United States Tennis Association, said: “She made tennis a better place, by opening doors and opening minds, doing so with grace and dignity. She is receiving a recognition she richly deserves.”
In 1957, Gibson, who grew up in Harlem, was the first African American to win the U.S. National Championships — what is now the U.S. Open — and Wimbledon. She returned home to a ticker-tape parade in her honor in Manhattan. Gibson repeated both wins the following year. She died in September 2003 at the age of 76.
Michelle Curry, executive director of the New Jersey-based Althea Gibson Community Tennis Association, which introduces tennis to at-risk youth, watched as a group of children gathered to pose next to the sculpture after the unveiling, saying its permanent presence would ensure her legacy lives on.
“This is a great moment for people to understand that no matter where you start, you can be whatever you want to be,” said Curry. "It looks exactly like Althea. Althea was the epitome of regal dignity."
The bust rises from a granite block and sits amid a group of five other blocks. On one, a quote from Gibson is etched: "I hope that I have accomplished just one thing: that I have been a credit to tennis and my country."