In 1995, Angela Buxton, the former Wimbledon tennis champion, was in her kitchen cooking onions when she received a phone call from her long-time friend and tennis partner, Althea Gibson. The American, then 67 had long since retired but despite becoming the first black player to win a grand-slam title, including two Wimbledon singles crowns, had fallen on hard times.
“She’d had several strokes and was living in Orange, New Jersey, in no state to look after herself,” remembers Buxton, now a famously feisty 84-year-old. “She said she had no money to pay her rent, food or medical bills and was going to do herself in. I sent her money but also told the world about her plight – secretly, because she could get on her high horse very easily.
Eventually she received oodles of money, small amounts from all over the world. She was a millionaire by the time I’d finished. We spent days just opening up the envelopes from people who remembered seeing her play 40 years before.”
The lifelong friendship between Gibson and Buxton was no ordinary bond. Despite coming from radically different backgrounds, the two were thrown together on the tennis circuit thanks to their outsider status – Buxton because she was Jewish, Gibson because she was black.
Widely regarded as the most influential player of her generation, Gibson overcame the entrenched racial prejudice that initially prevented her competing against the white stars of her day, with an all-court game that made her the Fifties equivalent of Serena Williams. Gibson died in relative obscurity in 2003, but in a move to celebrate the five- times grand-slam winner posthumously, she will be immortalised in August with a statue at Flushing Meadows, home of the US Open. Buxton will be recognised at the ceremony for her loyal support of Gibson.
The pair first met in India in 1955. President Eisenhower had sent Gibson on a goodwill tour, playing exhibition matches with the American Karol Fageros, Buxton playing in tournaments. “They were a great visual contrast,” recalls Buxton, “Karol blonde, glamorous and famous for wearing gold lame panties designed by [tennis couturier] Teddy Tinling. Althea tall, slim, powerful, wearing vests and shorts and playing tennis like a man. It was a deliberate choice to show the world symbolically that black and white people could play together.”
The pair quickly became friends, Buxton fascinated by Gibson’s dry sense of humour and self-belief, as well as her fine singing voice (she later became the only Wimbledon champion to sing at the Wimbledon Ball and, encouraged by Buxton, even recorded pop songs). “We hung out together,” says Buxton. They bonded over a shared love of movies and, when staying together in Manchester where Buxton’s family owned cinemas, Gibson would often watch three films in one day.
Born in Liverpool, Buxton’s family had fled the Russian pogroms at the turn of the century. “Our surname had been something like Bakstansky’, she explains, “but they anglicised it to Buxton.”
Her father, originally a cash-strapped street trader in Leeds, developed an ingenious gambling system. It was a huge success, enabling Harry to buy a string of cinemas and give Angela top-quality tennis coaching in South Africa, where the family moved to escape the Blitz. Back in England, Buxton swept the board at her first junior tournament in 1949 but was banned from playing at several clubs, including the Cumberland, because she was Jewish.
“The Southport club wouldn’t let me practise there,” she says, “even though I was No 1 in England, so a member took me there as his guest. I took great delight in winning their tournament. As I rose up the rankings, the girls on the circuit ignored me. Playing out in Mexico, they never once invited me to join them for a meal.”
Meanwhile, in Harlem, Gibson had started out playing stickball in the street when, aged 13, she was given two second-hand rackets, learning her craft at Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. She rapidly excelled and, from 1947, won a string of American Tennis Association national tournaments, organised for black players who were barred from USLTA events held at whites-only clubs. In 1951, Gibson became the first black player to compete at Wimbledon.
Despite being among the top players, neither had a doubles partner for the 1956 French Open. Gibson, like Buxton, was cold-shouldered by most of her rivals. “Althea was still fighting the black barrier,” says Buxton. “I remember her sitting on the sideline when I was playing the 1956 Wightman Cup against America at Wimbledon. I was thinking, ‘What the hell is she sitting there for?’ One of the best players in the world and she wasn’t chosen.”
It was Buxton’s maverick coach CM “Jimmy” Jones who first brokered the partnership. On court, though, Gibson’s high expectations made her a demanding ally. “She brought this attitude,” remembers Buxton. “If I missed a volley she’d give me a filthy look. When we lost at Queen’s Club, Jimmy said to her, ‘Do you know you’re putting Angela off with your attitude?’ Jimmy arranged for us to play a match against him and another man and he told her, ‘You just concentrate on being nice to Angela when she makes a mistake; you’ll do far better as a team.’ ”
Together they won the 1956 French doubles title, and beat the Americans Shirley Fry and Louise Brough in the Wimbledon semis. When Buxton also reached the Wimbledon singles final, the first Briton to do so in 17 years, her mother decided to attend the Wimbledon Ball to see her daughter open the dancing with Lew Hoad – but again faced anti-Semitism.
“We went to the LTA office at Wimbledon and asked for a ball ticket for my mother,” says Buxton. “The lady said she was very sorry but she hadn’t got any left. That really annoyed my mother, who drew herself up to her full 5ft 2in and said, ‘Well, I’m awfully sorry, too. I’m going to keep my daughter in on Saturday. Good day.’ Saturday was then ladies’ singles, doubles and mixed doubles finals, and the lady suddenly realised what my absence would mean.
“‘Come on,’ said my mother and going up the concourse, there was a tap on her shoulder. We went back to the LTA’s inner sanctum, where the lady said: ‘I’m awfully sorry about that. Here’s two tickets.’ They wouldn’t have done that to any other British player.”
Although Buxton lost to Shirley Fry in the singles final, she and Gibson were overjoyed to make history, outhitting the Australians Fay Muller and Daphne Seeney to take the doubles crown 6-1, 8-6.
“The next day one newspaper reported it under the headline ‘Minorities win’,” she remarks acidly. “It was in very small type, lest anyone should see it. I just wish Althea were around today to enjoy the belated tributes.”