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Serena, Venus part of a rich black history in tennis and the future looks bright

The sport must embrace diversity and our community should embrace back

I was 20 years old when I first stepped onto a tennis court to play. Today, at 67, I am a tennis junkie, and I deeply regret I was not exposed to the sport as a kid growing up in inner-city Cleveland during the 1950s. There were no tennis courts where I roamed. Nor were there any professional black male tennis stars with whom I could identify and emulate. In my neighborhood, tennis was considered an elitist sport, reserved largely for rich white people. As I watch the Australian Open — the first of the four annual major professional tournaments — I am reminded how much progress has been made since my childhood days. African-Americans have reached the pinnacle of the sport since Althea Gibson smashed the color barrier in 1950. Seven years later, Althea became the first African-American to hold a Grand Slam trophy when she won Wimbledon, then the U.S. Open. She repeated the back-to-back slam victories in 1958. Now, in this Australian Open, Serena Williams passed Steffi Graf to hold the greatest number of Grand Slam wins in Open Era history. These days you will find African-Americans and other people of color engaged in tennis at all levels, on the courts and behind the scenes.

US player Serena Williams (L) and US player Venus Williams (R) play against Russia'

Serena Williams (left) and Venus Williams (right) play against Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina during their women’s doubles quarter-final match on the 11th day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 7, 2016.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Much of that rise, it is safe to say, particularly among black girls, can be attributed to the phenomenal success of Serena and Venus Williams. Venus is the first African-American woman to duplicate Althea’s feat of back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. And Serena Williams, with her newly minted Grand Slam record, is widely considered to be the greatest woman tennis player ever in modern tennis. But no African-American man has captured a Grand Slam title since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, the last of his three major championships, more than 40 years ago. He won the U.S. Open in 1968 and the Australian Open in 1970. So this year’s Australian Open also reminds me that more work needs to be done. And I think it starts with changing the image of tennis among African-American men in our nation’s inner cities who view it as a sissy sport.

For example, the mother of a 10-year-old African-American girl I wrote about recently told me her teenage son gave up tennis because of peer pressure. “He said, ‘Mommy, it’s just not cool to do that,’ ” she said. Besides peer pressure, I suppose economics is a big factor. Tennis is an expensive undertaking, and the return on one’s investment is not nearly as great as it is in basketball, football or baseball. This year’s minimum salary for a rookie in the National Basketball Association is $543,471. The average tennis pro would do well to earn that in his first three years. Still, the sport is growing in stature, largely because of the efforts of local community groups and the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the governing body of tennis in America, which until Althea’s breakthrough had denied access to blacks. Today, the USTA is headed by a black woman, Katrina Adams, a former professional player who is in an unprecedented second consecutive term as president and CEO. And the person in charge of player development, Martin Blackman, is also black.

Defending U.S. Open Tennis women'

Defending U.S. Open Tennis women’s singles champion Serena Williams, left, of the United States, poses with USTA president Katrina Adams and the women’s singles trophy following a news conference and the U.S. Open draw ceremony at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on Aug. 27, 2015.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The USTA is excited about the growth of tennis in America, and the emergence of two black teenagers is perhaps an omen of what’s on the horizon. Both players, Frances Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh, earned berths in the main draw of this year’s Australian Open. They are among the International Tennis Federation’s “Next Generation” of stars. The history and future of blacks in tennis are what I had in mind when I began writing a blog last year called tennisinthehood.com. I want to help dispel the notion of tennis as a “whites-only” sport. I want to illuminate the deep, rich history of black tennis, including the founding of the American Tennis Association in 1916 as the black counterpart to what was then called the United States Lawn and Tennis Association. But I also want to convey how cool tennis is as a pastime and why it is called the sport for a lifetime. Mine might be a case in point. After having two hip replacement surgeries – the left one in 2007, the right one in 2008 — I am playing the best tennis of my life as I approach 70. If my personal anecdote is not convincing enough, consider Alice Lee, who began taking tennis lessons at age 59 after retiring as a Washington, D.C., schoolteacher. A year later, she founded the Active Aces Super Senior Tennis Club to continue the bond that had been formed among the seniors with whom she had taken lessons. Lee is now 81 and still playing regularly. And the tennis club has been recognized by the USTA for its efforts to grow the sport. The group sponsors youth and adult programs, including an annual clinic and tournament for players 60 and over. Among its signature events is an annual Sport of a Lifetime Luncheon, in which members who have reached the age of 80 are inducted into the club’s Octogenarian Hall of Fame and awarded one of the club’s blue jackets. Now, that’s a game, set and match!

Larry Bivins is a retired journalist, tennis addict and freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He began blogging on tennis from a black perspective in January 2016.