When I covered tennis for USA Today in the late 1980s through 2001, at times I saw more than a dozen African American pros compete in the U.S. Open. This year, the Grand Slam event began with only a handful – No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 16 Sloane Stephens, No. 39 Madison Keys, No. 60 Venus Williams, No. 100 James Blake and qualifier Donald Young (No. 156). Where have all the black pros gone, and more significantly, will they ever return?
Blake, 33, who reached No. 4 in 2006, is expected to announce his retirement Monday; Venus, 33, a four-time Wimbledon and two-time U.S. Open champion, has slipped steadily in the rankings and Young, who turned pro at 16 after becoming the world’s top-ranked junior in 2005, is 24 and struggling. How long will Serena be the Tiger Woods of tennis?
I’ve asked several African American tennis coaches and former pros to share their thoughts on the absence of black males at the highest level of the game and what can be done to improve the numbers.
First Up: Bob Davis, who traveled with Arthur Ashe as a junior and helped integrate several junior events in the South before the Civil Rights era. Davis, once affiliated with Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy, is president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame and President of the Panda Foundation, Inc.
The dearth of Black tennis players is not a new problem. Arthur Ashe has been gone for more than 20 years and he spoke of this shortage back in the 1980’s. One of his greatest arguments was that most high school physical education coaches in urban schools don’t teach tennis because most have never played tennis themselves. My personal experience tells me that this is true. In addition, I think that there are several other components that combine to make this a difficult challenge for us now and in the future.
First, contrary to the conventional wisdom of many, tennis is still a very expensive situation. Even if coaches are willing to teach at little or at no cost; even if coaches find a way to provide the student with free equipment, once a player reaches the competitive level, things change dramatically in favor of the wealthy. The cost of travel, hotels, meals, clothing and a travelling coach is prohibitive. It is well documented that families must spend $60-80,000 minimum per year to achieve and maintain a national ranking. Most Black families don’t earn that much per year and even fewer can afford to invest that amount into their child’s tennis.
Second, once a youngster shows progress and national potential, he or she is often urged to leave the coach that nurtured them in an effort to secure greater resources. This strategy ignores the cultural compatibility that the student likely developed in their familiar environment. Essentially, the child is being removed from the supportive village that surrounded him with love and nurturing and lifted him to a place of prominence and recognition. Time and again, the isolation felt by these youngsters has proven to be disastrous.
Finally, let me add something that I’ve been advocating for two decades. If Blacks are ever to become a dominant force in tennis, we must develop our own training environment, with the best coaches (both Black and White), with Black corporate support and the unfettered cooperation of the powers-that-be. If you’ve ever tried to get a wild card into a Challenger, you understand how difficult it is to gain the necessary experience that Futures and Challenger tournaments offer.
In summation, during the past century that Blacks have been playing tennis, we have produced four (4) world champions; Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Serena and Venus Williams. While one champion every quarter-century isn’t so bad, in the scheme of American athletics, we know this is a substandard representation. Will we make the necessary changes? I hope so!