The British tennis player Angela Buxton, who has died aged 85, had the sort of feisty disposition that might be expected of a grand slam doubles champion. But with Jewish parents from families that had fled Russia at the end of the 19th century, she needed it, being denied membership of clubs where she trained as a teenager through racial discrimination. Thus she was instinctively sympathetic to the way the US player Althea Gibson was treated when they met in India at Christmas 1955.
Gibson was so disenchanted with the struggles that she was facing as the only black player competing at the top echelon of American tennis that she was on the point of giving up the game when she got a call from President Dwight Eisenhower’s office delegating her to show the flag on an official tour of south-east Asia. By coincidence or not, Gibson was partnered on the tour by the sport’s “blond bombshell”, Karol Fageros. “They made a great visual contrast,” Buxton observed drily.
Buxton, who was playing in the same Indian tournaments, noticed that Gibson was spending much of her time alone and befriended her: “We became pals and did everything together.” In spring 1956 Buxton and her progressive coach Clarence “Jimmy” Jones, himself a bit of a maverick in the starchy white tennis community of the time, saw that Gibson was having trouble finding a doubles partner on the eve of the French Championships at Roland Garros. Jones suggested that he ask Gibson if she wanted to play with Buxton. The result was the unlikely birth of a brief but highly successful doubles partnership.
Buxton and Gibson won the French title and then repeated their triumph at Wimbledon. In the meantime Buxton reached the Wimbledon singles final, where she lost to the American Shirley Fry.
At least within the confines of the locker room, Buxton’s gesture had lowered a barrier and Gibson, whose rangy athleticism and match-winning temperament were making her the best player in the world, was suddenly in demand.
Later in the year Buxton suffered a wrist injury, and Darlene Hard, a leading American player, partnered Gibson in 1957 – the year that the young woman from Harlem became Wimbledon singles champion, a feat she repeated 12 months later.
Unhappily for herself as well as British tennis, Buxton was forced at the end of the 1957 season to retire from the game with what had become a chronic hand condition. However, with Jones as a partner on the coaching court as well as with a book they wrote together, she remained involved with the game.
Born in Liverpool, Angela was the daughter of Harry Buxton, who owned a chain of cinemas, and his wife, Violet (nee Greenberg). To avoid second world war bombing, Violet took her son and daughter to South Africa, where Angela took up tennis. After their return in 1946, she carried on with the sport at a boarding school, Gloddaeth Hall, in Llandudno, north Wales.
Her parents divorced in 1947, and Angela and her mother lived in London, near the Cumberland club in Hampstead.
She was soon improving her game under the tutelage of the club coach, Bill Blake. After a while she applied for membership but heard nothing back from the club secretary. “Why is this, Bill?” Buxton asked. “Because I’m not good enough?” Embarrassed, Blake replied: “No, because you’re Jewish.”
So Buxton took herself off to another club and improved sufficiently to win the English Indoor Championships as well as the London Grass Court title. But these victories did not give her the most satisfaction. “I made a point of going back to the Cumberland club to win their bloody tournament – twice! Just to rub their noses in it. And they never gave me a cup of tea – not even that.”
A parallel experience of exclusion came when she and her mother went to Los Angeles in 1952. She told the Observer: “The antisemitism made me more isolated. It made me more determined, more detached. As a result I was often on my own. For a different reason Althea was on her own, too. And then we came together and beat everybody.”
The pair stayed in touch over the years but had not spoken for a while when, in 1995, Buxton suddenly got a phone call from Gibson in the US. “Angie, baby, I can’t last much longer. I don’t have any money for the rent, for food and my medicines.”
Despite playing pro golf and being appointed sports commissioner of New Jersey, Gibson had fallen on hard times as medical bills piled up after she suffered two aneurysms and a stroke in the early 1990s, and it was Buxton who saved her. Despite getting little reaction from her initial pleas, a letter in Tennis Week magazine in 1996 increased awareness of Gibson’s plight and suddenly donations flowed in, overstuffing her mailbox.
At first she was bewildered but then realised it was her old doubles partner she had to thank. Nearly a million dollars was raised, enabling Gibson to live another eight years in comfort.
Buxton turned to writing as well as co-producing a documentary, Althea (2014). By then she had bought herself a winter home near Boca Raton in Florida and become a regular in the press rooms of tournaments throughout southern Florida, her interest in younger players never flagging.
In 2019 she went to the US Open in New York for the unveiling of a statue of Gibson. The sport to which she had contributed so much and which had not always treated her well remained her lifelong passion.
In 1959 she married Donald Silk, a solicitor, and they had two sons and a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce, her sons predeceased her, and she is survived by her daughter, Rebecca.
• Angela Buxton, tennis player, born 16 August 1934; died 14 August 2020
• This article was amended on 10 September 2020 to correct the name of Angela Buxton’s daughter.