Where are the black men in tennis?
The sport needs iconic athletes to draw new generations of players
Rafael Nadal earned his 19th Grand Slam title and his fourth US Open on Sunday. In a gripping final match, Nadal held off young Daniil Medvedev to close out the final Grand Slam event of the season.
I watched the exhilarating match Sunday and wondered, what has happened to professional tennis in the United States? More specifically, where are the black men in tennis?
We ask this question every year during the US Open. For the casual U.S. tennis fan, this is when tennis comes on our radar screen — before the NFL season kicks in and the NBA gears up. In fact, that’s the answer to the question, where are black male tennis players?
The great young black athlete is playing college football on Saturdays, NFL football on Sundays and basketball during the winter. The rest are being snatched up by soccer or by baseball.
Those sports have developed highly efficient systems for identifying and refining talent from the youth level to the pros. The tennis industry in this country, barricaded for so long in country club ivory towers, is only now realizing that making U.S. tennis great again means inclusion and diversity.
While women of color and black women in particular are surging in tennis, there is barely a glimmer of hope that African American men will rise to a consistent superstar level. Arthur Ashe was the last black American man to win a Grand Slam title — that was in 1975.
Andy Roddick was the last American man to win a Grand Slam title, which was in 2003. Men’s tennis in the United States has been in a downward cycle since the sport’s recent heyday when Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and James Blake competed. Frances Tiafoe was touted as the next great player from the United States, but he simply has not had the results. Tiafoe reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year but was eliminated at the second round of this year’s US Open.
“I would love to say it’s a cyclical thing, but this is a pretty long cycle,” said Chris Widmaier, managing director of corporate communications for the USTA.
How can tennis tap into other sports pipelines and get young talent? The one thing tennis has going for it as it tries to tap into the football pipeline, for example, is that football is so brutal and has been exposed for its inescapable brutality. “Our players don’t get concussions,’’ USTA president Patrick Galbraith told me last week.
No, they don’t, but aspiring young football players who make it do receive the prestige of being NFL players. Beyond that, tennis for aspiring young black men can be isolating. You will always be one black face among thousands, compared with the basketball and football pipelines that are heavily populated with other African Americans on the conveyor belt.
Donald Young, who was once the young black hope of tennis, once spoke with me about the isolating culture of tennis.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You play a sport and don’t see a lot of yourself out there. It’s hard. You play other sports. You can relate. It’s difficult, even the music you like. You look at sports like basketball and everything’s pretty similar. The players all come from similar backgrounds. You kind of relate and talk.”
Women have found that there is definitely strength in numbers and in role models.
Thanks to Venus and Serena Williams, women’s tennis in general, and especially in the United States, is deep and rich. “The women are phenomenal. The children are growing,” Galbraith said, referring to players such as Coco Gauff, 15, and Caty McNally, 17. “Then you have the adults, you have Sloane [Stephens] and Madison Keys and that group. Then you have the grandparents — Serena and Venus. You have three generations of players out there all being successful, and they’re all pushing each other. It’s forcing Venus and Serena to stay young.”
Granted, the dominance of women in U.S. tennis speaks to their limited opportunities to make a living as a professional athlete. The only real place for women to make substantial sums of money is in tennis (golf to a lesser extent). In soccer, the U.S. women are suing their federation for equal pay with the men. The WNBA is woefully behind the NBA. There is no professional football to speak of for women.
“On the men’s side there are so many more options,’’ Galbraith said. “They can be a pro football player, basketball player, pro baseball player. Tennis is down the line for men. For women, it’s a high priority.”
Galbraith added that the sport must attract a much larger, and more diverse, pool of male players. “If we had five times the amount of kids playing tennis, our problems would be solved,” Galbraith said. “It’s a total numbers game, because for every 10,000 kids you have playing, a certain percentage are going to play D-I tennis, a certain percent are going to play pro. If we can just get more kids playing the game, you’re going to speed that up.”
But how? Tennis is a great sport and one that can provide college scholarships and a substantial living for a long period of time. How can the sport pull potential athletic talent away at an early age, especially from the clutches of football and basketball?
One way would be to reduce the costs of travel by placing several USTA training centers around the country, rather than having elite players come to Florida. Youth football is everywhere; youth basketball is everywhere.
Affordable USTA-sponsored youth tennis centers need to be everywhere.
That is, if the sport is really serious about going wide and going deep.
“We need to crack that code,” Widmaier said, referring to finding new ways of attracting talent. “I don’t have the answers. I know we need to see some younger players get into the second week of Grand Slams and start proving themselves like the American women have. We need tennis to attract better athletes in bigger numbers.’’
Making U.S. tennis great again means escalating inclusion, tearing down barriers, bringing more people into the sport. “We need tennis to look like America,” Widmaier said. “When tennis truly looks like America, we’re going to be back as the powerhouse we should be.”