At the 1996 U.S. Open, American tennis player Michael Chang advanced to the finals, only to be bested by Pete Sampras like so many other players of his generation. It was Chang’s second Grand Slam final of the season, having finished runner-up at the Australian Open at the beginning of the year.
Chang, the 1989 French Open champion and ’95 runner-up in Paris, was no stranger to Grand Slam success. One of his countrymen, though – MaliVai Washington – was. A solid pro, Washington had only made one Grand Slam quarterfinal (Australia ’94) by the time the ’96 season rolled around. That all changed at Wimbledon that year when he surprisingly advanced to the finals, becoming the second African-American male in the history of the game, after Arthur Ashe, to advance that far at a Major.
Those Grand Slam runs by Chang and Washington are significant because no American male of color has been able to replicate those feats – or even make a semifinal at one of the sport’s premier events – since.
And while on the women’s side, Venus Williams and Serena Williams have dominated for close to two decades now, are currently joined in the top 25 of the Women’s Tennis Association singles rankings by Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, only James Blake – who retired in 2013 – reached such heights on the men’s side. Donald Young and Rajeev Ram are the only two men of color from the U.S. currently in the top 100 of the singles rankings.
Martin Blackman, general manager of the United States Tennis Association’s Player Development department, feels the opportunity for balance is there while also noting the disparity between male and female minorities on their respective tours.
“I think there are a few pieces to it,” said Blackman a former professional and junior and collegiate star. “One is that in college tennis, the women have eight scholarships. There’s a much bigger pull into the sport when parents are deciding to invest in and have their girls play the game. The second piece of it is that it’s the most lucrative professional sports opportunity for women. Thirdly, because it’s one of the top-three most popular sports for women, you’re getting your best female athletes into the game. Lastly, the Venus-Serena effect: They’ve had such a positive impact on the game as role models, as champions. The effect of seeing them on top for the last 15 years has pulled so many African-American girls into the game.”
What were once common trains of thought – “Black people don’t play tennis,” “Tennis is only played at the country clubs” – have been permanently dented by the impact of the Williams sisters on the sport, but not wiped out completely.
“I grew up in southwest Atlanta in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I went to an all-black middle school and nobody played tennis,” said Scoville Jenkins, who won the boys 18s national championships in 2004, becoming the first black player to do so.”It was embarrassing sometimes for me when I’d go to school and tell people I played tennis. Something was wrong with me because I didn’t play football. I played basketball, but that was off and on. I just thought that’s the way it was, a lot of minorities didn’t play tennis.”
Overcoming that stigma, as well as trying to increase diversity among all facets of the game – from players to coaches to volunteers – are among the objectives of the United States Tennis Association’s Diversity & Inclusion department.
“One of our pillars would be image,” said D.A. Abrams, chief diversity officer for the USTA, who heads the Diversity & Inclusion department. “It’s important for people to see themselves in the game. When you see like faces, it’s more inviting, more engaging, you feel welcome. Therefore, you tend to stay around longer, you continue to play.”
That group works closely with all of the USTA’s departments and in close conjunction with Player Development, which is responsible for finding and guiding the next generation of professional tennis players. The two groups have collaborated extensively on various initiatives, including three separate symposiums over the past year for African-American, Hispanic and women coaches.
Aside from what might be looked at from a sociably acceptable point, the fact that there aren’t any American minorities at the top, as well as young athletes gravitating toward other sports, slows the numbers., but the USTA remains optimistic.
“It’s an area of opportunity for us,” Abrams said. “Particularly in America, when you’re competing – whether you want to, like to or not – you’re competing with the NFL, which owns Sunday and on all these other days of the week. You’re competing with basketball, which not only is marketed by teams, but the other teams when they go into these different cities to play. In addition to that, their sponsors are marketing them.
“In America, it’s all about stars: I don’t know if that’s right. It’s just a culture of stars,” he added. “We really have to get – which I’m confident that we will in the years to come – a dominant African-American player. We’ve had James Blake – he did quite well. We have Donald Young, who’s still doing well. But if you’re not a tennis insider, you don’t really know who they are, like everybody knows who Serena and Venus are. I’m confident we’ll be there sooner, rather than later.”
Jenkins, currently assistant men’s tennis coach at the University of Wisconsin and a former top-200 ranked pro, also believes that an American male of color at the to p– not in the midtier of the rankings – is a necessity.
“That’s the sad part of tennis: Donald Young is a damn good player,” he said. “But if you’re not Serena Williams dominating? That’s what these kids only see. That’s an unfortunate thing. If Young was in the top 10 that would draw a lot of players in, especially minorities.”
It’s an interesting thing because I honestly believe that two guys coming up, Frances Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh, both have a chance to be top 10, top 20 players in the world,” said Rodney Harmon, currently the women’s tennis coach at Georgia Tech. “It’s a difficult thing to find, because not only do you have to have the athletic ability and the eye-hand coordination, but you also have to have the desire to want to do the sport, you have to be willing to travel and be on your own in a very different environment that what you grew up in and be comfortable in that, to be able to flourish and be successful,” said Harmon, who previously served in leadership roles in both player and multicultural development at the USTA, and was a former top-60 ranked pro.
“Both of those guys have that type of situation. Having the right group around you, and being able to be comfortable is important for anyone, particularly, though for someone of color, because you’re in an environment where many places you go you might be the only person of color in that place. “Young went on to say, “It takes a different kind of kid, one who’s happy doing things on their own, who’s independent.”
Tiafoe recently offered a glimpse to the masses of his potential when he took a two sets to none lead over his compatriot John Isner on the first day of the U.S. Open. Isner, who’s been the top-ranked American for the better part of this decade, eventually came back and won in five sets. It was a veteran win, but the rookie showed that he belonged on the tour – and established himself as a favorite to break a dubious streak.