Photo of Althea Gibson playing tennis
Bettmann/Getty Images

The Rule Breaker

The amazing story of Althea Gibson, a star tennis player who fought an unfair world to make her dream come true

By Elise Broach
From the February 2024 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will read a historical fiction play about Althea Gibson, a tennis star who fought segregation in her sport. Students will then identify how she persevered in an unfair world and changed the sport for future generations.

Other Key Skills: vocabulary, fluency, text evidence, key detail, how a character changes, text features, author’s craft, summarizing, key idea
UP CLOSE: Character

To persevere means to not give up. In what ways did Althea Gibson persevere in an unfair world? How did this make a difference for others?

Scene 1
Serena Williams’s bedroom, Florida, March 1999

N1: Serena Williams is hunched over her desk, writing a list of questions. Her friend Lisa lounges on the bed.

Lisa: Is that for the social studies paper? 

Serena Williams: Yeah, I’m writing about Althea Gibson. I’m going to send her a letter.

Lisa: Who’s Althea Gibson?

N2: Serena looks up, surprised.

Serena: Only one of the greatest tennis players EVER.

Lisa: Never heard of her. I bet she’s not as good as you.

Serena: Ha! When she was young, she was the best in the world. And she had to fight for it. 

Lisa: What do you mean?

Serena: She grew up poor in the 1930s, when Black people weren’t allowed to eat at the same restaurants as White people, or go to the same schools, or compete in the same tennis games. The rules were unfair, so Althea broke them.  

Lisa: She sounds tough.

Serena: She’s more than just tough! She was a pioneer in tennis . . . she’s Black, she looks like me, and she opened up so many doors. 

Lisa: Wow, I hope she answers your questions. I want to hear her story.

© Genevieve Naylor /National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Courtesy Reznikoff Artistic Partnership (Harlem); Mauricio Paiz/Alamy Stock Photo (Serena Williams)

Althea Gibson shows kids in Harlem how to play paddle tennis in 1957. Throughout her life, Althea coached young athletes. Tennis stars like Serena Williams (inset) believe that Althea led the way for them to be successful.  

Scene 2
Harlem, New York City, 1937

N3: It’s a hot, sticky day in August 1937. Ten-year-old Althea Gibson is playing in the street with other neighborhood kids.  

Charles: Althea, try this new game! 

Althea Gibson: What’s it called?

Charles: Paddle tennis. Here, I’ll show you.

N1: Charles takes a paddle and hits a small ball to Althea. 

Charles: Now you hit it back.

N2: The ball flies between them, faster and faster.

N3: Then Althea whacks the ball. It soars past Charles before he can reach it. 

Charles (annoyed): Go get that.

Althea: No, YOU get it. You’re the one who missed.

N1: Charles storms off to retrieve the ball.

Althea: This is fun! Alma, you try.

Alma Irving (doubtful): I’ll never be as good as you. You win every single game we play . . . baseball, basketball, football—and now this goofy paddle game.

Althea: Well, sports are easy for me. I’d always rather be outside playing games than sitting in class.

N2: Alma and Althea start playing. 

N3: Their neighbor, musician Buddy Walker, sits nearby, watching.

N1: Althea beats Alma, and then every other kid.

Buddy Walker: Althea Gibson, look at you! You ever played this before?

Althea: Nope! 

Buddy: Well, I’m going to get you a racket and show you how to play REAL tennis.  

Althea: What’s a racket?

Buddy (laughing): You’ll see.

CARL T. GOSSETT JR./The New York Times/Redux

Unfair Rules

Until the 1960s, racist laws and ideas kept Black people separate from White people all over the U.S. Most tennis clubs were not open to Black players. In fact, Black players had to form their own tennis associations and couldn’t compete with White players. After Alice Marble and others spoke out against the unfair rules, Althea was allowed to compete in the biggest tennis tournament in the U.S. in 1950—the first Black person to do so.


Althea and Alice Marble in 1950

Scene 3
National Girls Championship, Pennsylvania, 1942

N2: After Buddy buys Althea a secondhand tennis racket, he gets her into the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem.

N3: It is one of the few clubs in the U.S. where Black people and White people can play tennis together.  

N1: Soon she’s winning games against even the best adult players. The other club members quickly see Althea’s talent and want to help her succeed. 

N2: They collect money to pay for her lessons and her tennis clothes. 

N3: And they pay the fees to send her to her first big competition, a national tournament for Black girls. 

N1: Rhoda Smith, a club member who’s taken a special interest in Althea, goes with her.

Rhoda Smith: This is a big day, Althea! How are you feeling?

Althea: Like I can beat anyone, Miss Rhoda.

Rhoda: Your confidence is a beautiful thing. But you shouldn’t boast. 

Althea: Why not? I play better than anybody.

Rhoda: Well, don’t talk about it. Just go out there and do your best.

N2: And Althea does. In game after game, she keeps winning. 

N3: A huge crowd claps as Althea walks onto the court for her match against Nana Davis.

Althea (looking at Nana)Get ready! I’m going to beat you.

N1: The match is tense. First, Althea is ahead. Then Nana.  

N2: At each smack of the ball, people in the stands gasp, eyes wide.

N3: Althea and Nana are fighting for the title of best Black girl player in the U.S. 

N1: The next point is crucial.

Announcer: Davis hits a long, low shot and . . . Gibson slams the ball into the net! 

N2: Althea has lost! 

N3: Nana walks up to the net to shake her hand.

Nana Davis: Good game!

N1: But Althea won’t even look at her. She stomps off the court, where Rhoda is waiting for her.

Rhoda: Althea, that’s no way to behave on a tennis court.

Althea: I should’ve won!

Rhoda: If you want to be the best, you have to act like the best. There are rules for tennis and rules for being polite.

Althea: I don’t like rules!

Rhoda: I know you don’t. But out here on the tennis court, you represent our club, our neighbors, our whole community. Do you understand that?  

N2: Althea frowns, kicking at the ground.

Rhoda: A lot of people are counting on you, Althea. 

N3: Althea looks up at Rhoda and takes a deep breath.

Althea (softly): I won’t let you down again.

Douglas Miller/Reg Burkett/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Althea receives a kiss from her opponent Darlene Hard, after beating her and becoming the first Black player to win Wimbledon, in 1957.

Scene 4
Harlem, New York City, 1950

N1: With the help and encouragement of other Black tennis players, Althea finishes high school and gets a full scholarship to a college in Florida.

N2: At 22, she’s now a top player. 

N3: Her dream is to play at the U.S. National Championships, the biggest tennis tournament in the country.

N1: But to qualify, she needs to win lower-level matches, and those are held at tennis clubs where only White people are allowed to play. 

N2: Althea and Alma sit together in their old neighborhood.

Althea: How can I prove I’m the best if I’m not even allowed to play?

Alma: It’s not fair. 

Althea: I keep applying to all these tournaments. They still ban Black players. But that’s not going to stop me!

N3: Althea sighs. 

Althea: I can follow the rules of the game, but not the rules meant to keep me out.

Alma: Well, you are good at breaking the rules, Althea.

N1: Just then, Buddy Walker comes hurrying down the street, waving a magazine.

Buddy: Althea! Did you hear? Alice Marble published a letter telling the Whites-only clubs they should let you play.

Alma: Who’s Alice Marble?

Althea: She’s a famous White tennis player! What does her letter say?

Buddy (reading): This is the best part—“Nobody has ever questioned my right to play in the Nationals because of the color of my skin.”

Althea: Do you think it’ll make a difference?

Buddy: I don’t know, but everybody in the tennis world is talking about it, Black and White.

Althea: Oh, I just want a chance to play!

N2: Alice Marble’s letter does make a difference. As do the many protests by both Black and White players against the racist rules that keep Black players from joining most tennis clubs and tournaments. 

N3: Soon Althea becomes the first Black player to compete at the Nationals.

Phil Greitzer/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Althea waves at cheering crowds during a parade in New York City in 1957.

Scene 5
U.S. National Championships, New York City, 1950 

Althea: I can’t believe this is happening.

Alma: We’re so proud of you.

Rhoda: You’re making history!  

Althea: I know what it means for me to be here. I’ll keep the promise I made to you, Miss Rhoda. 

N1: Althea faces Louise Brough, a world champion. 

N2: Althea plays a graceful, powerful game. She’s in the lead, about to win!  

N3: But then the skies turn dark and a drenching thunderstorm stops the match.

N1: The next day, back on the court . . .

N2: . . . Louise beats Althea in just 11 minutes. 

Announcer: What a match! 

N3: Althea goes to the net. Smiling, she shakes Louise’s hand.

Althea: Good game!

Announcer: Nobody can question that Althea Gibson earned her place here.

N1: As she leaves the court, Rhoda and Alma rush to hug her.

Rhoda: Althea, I’m more proud of you than if you had won.

Alma: You lost like a champion!

Scene 6
Wimbledon, England, 1957

N2: Now the whole world knows what Althea can do on the tennis court.

N3: Tennis players all across the U.S. continue protesting for the rights of Black players to compete with White players.

N1: Little by little, the rules start changing. Althea begins to play everywhere. 

N2: She travels to 18 tournaments overseas and wins 16 of them.

N3: Finally, she’s competing in the most important tennis championship in the world—Wimbledon, in England.

N1: The weather is steamy hot, but Althea easily beats player after player. 

N2: Now it’s the final match, against Darlene Hard.

N3: Althea sends the balls soaring over the net. She flies across the court. 

N1: And in 50 minutes, she has won the match.

N2: She’s the top tennis player in the world.

Althea (shouting): At last! At last!

N3: Althea runs to the net to shake Darlene’s hand.

Althea: You played so well, Darlene. I got lucky.

N1: Suddenly, a red carpet is rolled out onto the court. Queen Elizabeth walks over to Althea.

Queen Elizabeth: You’ve won Wimbledon, Miss Gibson! How does it feel?

Althea (smiling wide): Your Majesty, it feels like this is the prize for all the games I’ve ever played since I was a little girl.

Scene 7
New York City, 1957

N2: Althea returns to the U.S. in triumph. There is a parade for her in New York City.

N3: She rides in the mayor’s car, waving to thousands of fans. 

Crowd: Althea! Althea!

N1: Afterward, she’s invited to a fancy lunch of delicious foods.

N2: The mayor stands to speak.

Robert Wagner: Today we honor a tennis legend, our own Althea Gibson—the best female tennis player in the world. 

N3: People raise their glasses.

Crowd: To Althea!  

Wagner: Althea, your family, friends, and neighbors have been proud of you for a long time. But today, ALL New Yorkers are proud of you.  

Althea: Thank you, Mr. Wagner.

N1: Althea looks at all the smiling faces around her—famous politicians and tennis players seated right next to her old friends from Harlem.

N2: She swallows. Her eyes are misty.

Althea: If I’ve made it, it’s half because I was tough, and half because there were an awful lot of people who cared enough to help me.

Scene 8
Serena Williams’s bedroom, Florida, April 1999

N3: Serena flops on her bed, tired after a long tennis practice. Lisa is with her.

N1: The phone rings.

Serena: Hello?

Althea: This is Althea Gibson. 

Serena (stammering): Miss Gibson! You got my letter? I . . . didn’t expect you to call.

Lisa (whispering): Is it really her?

Althea: You are something special on the tennis court. I love watching you play.

Serena: I can’t believe I’m talking to you. 

Althea: Well, what’s the most important thing you want to ask me?  

Serena: Um . . . do you have any advice for me? On how to be a tennis champion? 

Althea (smiling): Don’t worry. The crowds will love you. Be who you are, and let your racket do the talking. 

Julian Finney/Getty Images (Statue); SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (STAMP) 

Althea Gibson passed away in 2003 at the age of 76. Over the years, statues and stamps have been made to celebrate her life and many accomplishments.


Write to Win

Write an essay on how Althea Gibson persevered in an unfair world. Explain how her actions made a difference. Entries must be submitted to “Tennis Contest” by a teacher, parent, or legal guardian.* Five winners will receive a copy of We Got Game! by Aileen Weintraub.

*Entries must be written by a student in grades 2-8 and submitted by their teacher, parent, or legal guardian, who will be the entrant and must be a legal resident of the U.S. age 18 or older. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.

This play was originally published in the February 2024 issue.  

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Table of Contents

1. Preparing to Read

Build Background, Preview Vocabulary, and Set a Purpose for Reading


  • Introduce students to Althea Gibson and build background knowledge about the time the play takes place with our video “Competing for Equality.”
  • Build background knowledge about tennis by showing the Background Builder Slideshow.
  • Draw students’ attention to the words at the top left of the opening spread that state the genre of this play: historical fiction. If students are unfamiliar with the genre, ask them if they can infer what it’s about. Then explain that historical fiction means that some of the events and people in the play are real, but some are made up. (For more information, read the Author’s Note from Elise Broach in the blue box on the following page.)
  • Preview challenging vocabulary from the play with our Vocabulary Skill Builder. Highlighted words: confidence, crucial, legend, mentor (in Character Box), pioneer, racist, triumph.
  • Call on a volunteer to read the Up Close box on page 22.

2. Reading the Play

Author’s Note From Elise Broach:

This play is based on the life of a real person, the tennis player Althea Gibson. It describes events that really happened or are closely based on things that happened to her. For instance, in 1999, Serena Williams really did send Althea a letter with a list of questions for a school project. And Althea did place a telephone call to the Williams sisters to say how impressed she was with the way they played; however, at the time, she spoke to Venus, not Serena. Some of Althea’s lines in the play are direct quotations, e.g. “Be who you are, and let your racquet do the talking.” When I’m writing historical fiction, my biggest decisions are which people and events to include, which to leave out, and how best to preserve the emotional truth of the story. I hope this play will make your students eager to learn more about the great Althea Gibson!

  • Assign parts and read the play aloud as a class or in small groups. Students can also listen to our Author Read-Aloud of the play as a first read. Note that larger speaking roles are marked with an asterisk in the character box on page 23; the smaller roles can be a good fit for students who feel less comfortable reading aloud in class.
  • After reading, put students in small groups to discuss the close-reading questions. Then talk about the critical-thinking questions as a class.

Close-Reading Questions

  1. Reread Scene 1. What do you learn about Althea Gibson? What character traits does she seem to have? How does Serena Williams feel about her? (character) We learn that Althea Gibson is an amazing and inspiring tennis player from history and that she worked hard to break unfair rules against Black tennis players. She seems like a tough and determined person. Serena Williams admires Althea and is inspired by her.
  2. In Scene 2, what evidence suggests that young Althea might be talented at tennis? (text evidence) In Scene 2, Althea is excellent at playing paddle tennis, which is similar to the sport she will excel at later in life, tennis. She beats every kid she plays, even though she says she’s never played the game before.
  3. At the beginning of Scene 3, how does Althea’s community come together to help her succeed? (key detail) The other club members come together to raise money for her to buy tennis clothes and lessons. They also pay for her to go to her first big competition.
  4. By the end of Scene 3, how does Althea’s attitude toward losing change? (how a character changes) In the middle of Scene 3, Althea stomps off the court instead of congratulating the opponent who beat her. By the end of the scene, Rhoda tells Althea that she has to be polite to her opponents, even when they beat her, because a lot of people are counting on her. Althea takes this advice to heart and says,“I won’t let you down.”
  5. Based on what you learn in Scene 4 and the sidebar “Unfair Rules,” what barriers did Althea face in playing in the U.S. National Championships? What events led to her being allowed to play? (text features) There were racist rules in place that prevented Black people, like Althea, from playing at tennis clubs. Yet Althea needed to win games at these tennis clubs to progress to the biggest tournaments. To help, Alice Marble and other tennis players—Black and White—spoke out and protested against the unfair rules so Black players could compete.
  6. At the end of Scene 5, why are Alma and Rhoda proud of Althea losing the match against Louise Brough? (character) Rhoda and Alma are proud of Althea because she lost with grace. Unlike the earlier game she lost against Nana Davis in Scene 3, Althea is a good sport. She smiles, compliments her opponent’s performance, and shakes her opponent’s hand after losing. Alma says that Althea “lost like a champion.”
  7. Reread Scene 6. How does the author show us that Althea has become one of the World’s biggest tennis stars? (author’s craft) The author shows that Althea has become a star tennis player by saying that Althea has traveled around the world playing in big tournaments, and the “whole world knows what Althea can do on the tennis court.” Also, she wins at the world’s most important tennis championship, Wimbledon. Finally, one of the most powerful people in the world, the Queen of England, congratulates Althea on her win.
  8. Based on the end of the play and the text features, how have Americans honored Althea’s achievements? (summarizing, text features) There was a big parade in Althea’s honor in New York City. She was invited to a fancy dinner with the mayor of the city, where people gave speeches about her. Finally, statues have been made to celebrate Althea, and she’s even on a U.S. postage stamp.
  9. How did Althea Gibson pave the way for Black tennis stars of today, like Serena Williams? (key idea) Althea paved the way for tennis stars of today because she was the first Black person to play in the U.S. National Championships, the biggest tennis tournament in the U.S. She broke barriers in the sport so future Black players could play in games, and unfair rules weren’t in place to stop them. Althea also coached young athletes. Finally, she encouraged and gave advice to future tennis stars like Serena Williams.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • What challenges did Althea face in her journey to becoming a tennis star, and how did she overcome them? (problem and solution) Althea faced racism and unfair rules that didn’t allow Black players like her to achieve their full potential. The protests of Black and White players against these racist rules allowed Althea to compete and achieve greatness in tennis. She also had difficulty dealing with losing matches. Her friend Alma and her mentor Rhoda helped her see that she was representing other Black people, that other players were counting on her example, and that she needed to be a good sport, even when she lost. Althea changed how she dealt with losing matches, which made Rhoda and Alma proud of her, and made her a champion in many people’s eyes.
  • What does it mean to be a champion? How was Althea a champion? (vocabulary, character) Answers will vary but may suggest that a champion like Althea Gibson wins a lot of big games against the best players in the world, is a good sport, whether they win or lose, and encourages future players of the sport.

3. Skill Building and Writing

Featured Skill: Character


  • Distribute or digitally assign the Character Skill Builder, available on two levels. Have students complete it independently or with a partner. This skill builder will help prepare students to respond to the writing prompt on page 27. Then you can send their work to our writing contest! (See page 2 of the magazine for details.)

Differentiate and Customize
For Striving Readers

The changing time periods of the play can make it challenging to follow. To help striving readers, explain that the first and last scenes of the play take place in 1999, with Serena Williams as a teen, and the other scenes take place several decades earlier to tell the story of Althea Gibson’s life. Before reading each scene together, make sure to call students’ attention to which timeline and character the scene will be following.

For Advanced Readers

In the first scene of the story, Serena Williams is writing a letter to Althea Gibson. First, explain to students that this actually happened! Then ask students to imagine they are Serena and write a letter to Althea. Ask students to include facts about Althea’s life that they learned from the play.

For Multilingual Learners

To better understand the play, multilingual students may benefit from having more information about U.S. civil rights history. Before reading the play, be sure to watch the video “Competing for Equality” together as a group and answer any questions about the historical context that students might have. After reading the play, reflect on the ways in which Althea helped make the world of tennis more equal.

Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Explore the Storyworks Archive

Introduce your students to other stories about inspiring figures in sports, such as “Nothing Can Stop Him” from our March/April 2023 issue, “Wrong Way, Roy!” from our February 2023 issue, “El Magnífico” from our December 2021/January 2022 issue, “Go!” from our September 2020 issue, and “The Fastest Woman in the World” from our May/June 2021 issue.

Learn More About Althea

This article from includes a 4-minute video where you’ll see Althea on the court and hear more about her life and legacy. (Note: Video starts after a brief ad.)

Watch a Video

Get inspired by this video from Sporting News celebrating Black female athletes. It features champions in tennis, swimming, basketball, gymnastics, and more. (Note: Video starts after a brief ad.)

Realize Your Potential

Both Althea and Serena worked tirelessly and believed in their abilities to be great athletes. This short motivational video from Rocket Kids encourages us to not hold back when striving to reach our goals. (Note: Video starts after a brief ad.)

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