The evening session of the U.S. Open began Monday with an hour-long tribute to tennis great Althea Gibson, who 50 years ago combined a strong serve and powerful ground strokes with a dignified, graceful presence that helped her become the first African American to capture this once racially segregated Grand Slam event.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former mayor David Dinkins and actress Phylicia Rashaad were among the dignitaries who celebrated Gibson’s contributions to the game, as well as the country. Gibson, who died in 2003, won the 1956 French Open and the U.S. Nationals (now U.S. Open) and Wimbledon crown titles in 1957-58. USTA president Jane Brown Grimes announced Gibson’s induction into the US Open Court of Champions, unveiling a plaque that noted her accomplishments.

“Althea Gibson’s talent, dignity and unrelenting desire to achieve made her a great champion,’’ Brown said. “She made tennis a better place, by opening doors and opening minds. She is finally receiving the recognition she so richly deserves.”

Poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni, singer Roberta Flack and track star Jackie Joyner Kersee were among 16 African American “Female Firsts” who participated in the tribute. Surprisingly, Leslie Allen, the first African American female to win a tour title after Gibson, the first to become chairwoman of the U.S. Fed Cup team and the first to become a tournament director, was not recognized.

The Gibson tribute continued with first round women’s matches featuring Venus and Serena Williams. No. 12 Venus defeated Hungary’s Kira Nagy 6-2, 6-1 and No. 8 Serena faced Germany’s Angelique Kerber and won 6-3, 7-5.

“Althea Gibson is a true pioneer and trailblazer,” Venus said. “She broke through racial barriers in tennis in pre-civil rights times and I will always be grateful to her for having the strength and the courage to triumph in extreme adversity. Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like me, Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”