Grand Slam: history of blacks in tennis.
"No it isn't," Ashe, recalling the incident in his memoir, Day of Grace, corrected her.
With his usual candor, Ashe surprised the woman: "Race has always been my biggest burden," he told her. "Even now it continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me."
Coming from such a heroically successful figure, the admission speaks volumes for the African-American struggle for mainstream participation. Even at the highest levels of accomplishment, Ashe was reminded of his color, especially when set against the white sea of the sport he chose. His career is symbolic, not just for what he achieved, but for the way he did it and what that meant for so many.
But the history of African-American tennis does not begin with Arthur Ashe, any more that it ends with his untimely death. His life just kind of neatly bisects it.
As Ashe himself chronicled so well in A Hard Road to Glory, blacks were taking to the courts with the crude (if expensive) wooden racquets of the day over one hundred years ago. Tuskegee Institute records indicate tournaments as early as 1895.
Shortly after the turn of the century, intercity competitions started up among newly-formed black tennis social clubs--a tradition that remains a part of African-American tennis today. The stark reality of the game's history is that this "genteel" pastime was heavily segregated back then and, but for a few exceptions, would remain so for another fifty years.
One of the earliest such groups was the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club, which is still active today. The club was chartered in 1912 by a small group of black players that included the legendary Mrs. C.O. "Mother" Seames, a woman who had been teaching the game on dirt and clay courts since 1906. In 1920, Mrs. Seames built four courts on Chicago's South Side that would essentially become the country's first private black tennis club.
An upscale descendant of that same spirit is the Martha's Vineyard Racquet & Fitness Club, opened by former NAACP president Jack E. Robinson in 1989. "The purpose of this place," said Robinson, "is to create an atmosphere for black vacationers and professionals to get together in healthy recreational and social activities." The club is host to an annual island-wide open tournament during the week before Labor Day.
Of paramount importance in the annals of all tennis was the 1916 formation of the American Tennis Association, the nation's oldest African-American sports organization. Founded to help more blacks play and enjoy the game, the ATA has to this day fostered and nurtured the tennis club scene in urban communities. In 1917, the ATA held its first national tournament in Baltimore with players from 23 separate clubs attending. Talley Homes and Lucy Diggs Slowe were the inaugural champions, followed over the years by a long list of ATA legends including Ashe, Althea Gibson and Zina Garrison.
One of the first black players to draw national attention to the ATA was Ora Washington, who dominated the women's division with eight titles in the 1930s. Her unique style was marked by blazing speed, along with a little half-swing with the racquet held high up on the grip. Washington's acclaim was accompanied by the Roosevelt-era construction of hundreds of public courts for future urban recreational use.
Of the many unrealized tennis talents, uncoached African-Americans from the pre-World War II era, the best may have been Jimmy McDaniel. With an aggressive serve-and-volley game honed on the cement courts of Los Angeles, McDaniels's reputation and ATA dominance earned him a landmark 1940 crossover match at the Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem with 1938 Grand Slam winner Don Budge. Although McDaniels was overmatched that day 6-1, 6-2, the exhibition nonetheless foresaw a not-too-distant future when the color barrier in tennis would drop.
That barrier had initially been challenged in 1929 when two ATA standouts, Reginald Weir and Gerald Norman Jr., were denied entry to a United States Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA) tournament. Eighteen more years of segregated competitive tennis ensured, followed by the historic appearance of ATA junior champ Oscar Johnson at USLTA's national indoor juniors in 1947. Johnson, too was stopped at the door, but when he threatened to take legal action, the USLTA capitulated.
Like McDaniels, Johnson was from the West Coast and self-taught (he liked to practice his swing before a mirror). He was bounced by Tony Trabert in the quarter-finals that year, but with his relentless attacking style, he came back to win the same event in 1948.
Around that same time, Harlem's Althea Gibson was volleying her way through the rankings, serving notice on the tennis world that African-American talent could no longer be held down, regardless of the USLTA's intentions. Prodded by the efforts of two black physicians who had coached and sponsored her for three years, the sport's staid ruling body bowed to public opinion and invited Gibson to Forest Hills for their 1950 National (U.S. Open). She lost in the second round but her very appearance was a symbolic leap for minority sport.
Gibson would wait another five years before earning five Grand Slam Titles towards the end of a glorious career. "People thought I was ruthless, which I was," Gibson would say 25 years later. "I didn't give a darn who was on the other side of the net. I'd knock you down if you got in the way." Her international stardom inspired new generations of blacks back home to take up tennis. What few people knew was the key role one man, R. Walter Johnson, played behind her success.
"Dr. J" was a godfather of tennis juniors, a selfless guru whose influence and dedication to hundreds of players would stretch across several decades. He had an eye for talent, and when he first saw Gibson in 1946 even as she was losing the ATA finals (she would later win ten straight titles), he immediately recognized the requisite raw skills and athletic abilities for a breakthrough in the white tennis arena. The rest was a matter of time, attention and funding, all three of which Dr. J supplied from the one-court camp at his home in Virginia to promising prospects.
Just after Gibson's tutelage, Dr. J discovered a skinny 10-year-old from Richmond who would change the sport.
"Arthur was so fragile," recalls Bobby Johnson, who coached at his father's camp and would ultimately refine Ashe's racquet work. "But when he played rise-and-fly (loser walks) with the older, bigger kids, he had the most staying power; he was the most motivated."
Over nine summers at Dr. J's, Ashe's game evolved from soft baseline to cold and calculated power. He and the other juniors would pile into the doctor's car every weekend, travelling to black tournaments up and down the East Coast. Over that same time he absorbed a strict social code that including unfailing politeness and clean tennis whites. "Both on and off the court," remembered camp-mate Bessie Stockard, "Arthur was all business."
But that business was nothing if not about winning. In 1963, Ashe became the first black man to win a USLTA tourney, the Hardcourts, an event that Oscar Johnson had crashed ten years earlier. In 1968, with Dr. J in the stands, he added the Open, with a grueling five-set final over Dutchman Tom Okker. (Post-match irony: Ashe was presented an award by the Virginia Jaycees, the same group that had once denied him entry in a state junior event.) In 1975, he methodically picked apart Jimmy Connors, shot-by-shot, to win Wimbledon--one of the most startling upsets in the sport's history.
Beset by heart problems, Ashe retired in 1980 at the tail end of the fabled tennis boom, an era that had brought more African-Americans, as well as other minorities, into the tennis fold. Socially and recreationally, the ATA was strong as ever; competitively, the organization was somewhat weakened, since formerly all-white tournaments were now open to everyone.
But for all its myriad commitments--junior tennis, court development, local associations, competitions--the ATA never failed to serve in familial capacity. "We always travelled to different cities for the championship," recalled Willis Thomas Sr., whose son, Willis Jr. played with Ashe and coached Zina Garrison. "That served a twofold purpose: go on vacation and play tennis."
For Leslie Allen, who played and won ATAs in the '70s, these were festive gatherings. "As a child of tennis-playing parents," she said, "it's all we knew. We'd travel somewhere and either be cooking or hanging out at the courts all day. We'd stay with somebody, and then they'd come and stay with us."
Allen joined a number of blacks who played pro tennis in the '80s, including Chip Hooper, Rodney Harmon, Todd Shelton, Camille Benjamin, Kim Sands, Lori McNeil and Zina Garrison-Jackson. While none attained the success of Ashe or Gibson, their many achievements are owed in no small part to the trails forged by their predecessors. Former French Open champion Yannick Noah, who was literally discovered by Ashe on a visit to Cameroon, once said of Ashe, "It was him who, when I was young, gave me the dream."
In much the same fashion that Noah was noticed by Ashe, and Ashe and Gibson by Dr. Johnson, so too were the talents of Garrison-Jackson and McNeil discovered and nurtured by John Wilkerson, a former ATA champion with a junior development program in Houston. Garrison-Jackson returned the favor by building a tennis center for her former coach to continue his work with young minority players. In reaching the semi-finals at this year's Wimbledon, McNeil recorded a historical first by ousting defending champion Steffi Graf in the first round.
An important side to the gradual impact of Ashe's legacy is the changing face of the USTA--the organization's efforts for the advancement of minorities both within its own body and within the entire sport. Dave Abrams, for example, is currently national coordinator of the USTA's National Junior Tennis League--the very same organization that he played in as a youth and that was founded by Ashe.
"Through the efforts of our Minority Participation Program (headed by an African-American woman, Pat Koger Thompson), we're seeing more African-Americans pick up the game," said Abrams. "The perception of the sport is changing. We haven't had a champion for a while, but we'll get there."
Among the brightest prospects for the immediate future would appear to be Malivai Washington, J.J. Jackson, Chanda Rubin and Venus Jackson. After years of media notice and armed with a contract from Reebok, Venus, who just turned 14, is about to play her first professional tournament. jackson, a surprise winner of the National 16s in 1992, just turned pro and still has hundreds of names ahead of him in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings.
Then there's Brenda Gilmore, an African-American photographer who was paralyzed 20 years ago as a result of a hit-and-run accident. Introduced to the game by an able-bodied friend, Gilmore hits balls from a wheelchair. "It became my equalizer," she said. "I got more serious about it, and became the first black female to get nationally ranked in wheelchair tennis."
Gilmore has won several wheelchair titles and beaten many an able-bodied player. She currently works for the USTA as Schools Program Director, and was recently awarded certification as a USTA teaching professional. "It's increased my selfesteem," she said. "That's the drive; that and the trophy."
Brenda Gilmore is a true champion.
For more information about membership and efforts to advance minorities in professional tennis, call the United States Tennis Association at 914 696-7000.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section: 1994 Black Enterprise/Pepsi-Cola Golf and Tennis Challenge|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1994|
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