Opinion: Still the blind whiteness of tennis


Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz defeated Norway’s Casper Ruud in four sets in Sunday’s US Open semi-final. But since his work has focused on black sports, I took more interest in Friday’s match between Alcaraz and Tiafoe, the first African-American man to reach the US Open semifinals since my friend, who was a tennis player. Arthur Ashe did it in 1972. Tiafoe lost to Alcaraz in a hard-fought battle, but his strong overall performance at the Open put the sports world on notice that he could be the next great American player to watch.
Now that the Grand Slams are over and we can assess the year in tennis, it is remarkable to consider that the 2022 US Open was between the achievements of two highly successful black players in an overwhelmingly white sport.
In Serena Williams, the US Open provided a fitting grandstand for a tennis legend whose historic career is coming to an end; In Tiafoe, he had a gifted young man with all the promise in the world. Both players had to overcome financial hardships to succeed in a sport with a history of racial exclusion, a sport historically unfriendly to black players.
Serena’s story — as a child her father, along with her sister Venus, in Compton’s public courts — is a well-known one.
Tiafoe had an even tougher introduction to tennis, learning to play on the same courts his father — an immigrant from war-torn Sierra Leone — helped build. His father later became a facility maintenance worker, giving Tiafoe access to the facilities, equipment and training he would need to flourish in the sport.
LeBron James tweeted Words of encouragement to Tiafoe after his shocking fourth-round upset over tennis star Rafael Nadal. Former First Lady Michelle Obama attended Friday’s thrilling semifinal, where she eventually lost to Alcaraz, along with NBA player Bradley Beal and a contingent of other supporters.
But Tiafoe’s saga should in no way be mistaken as a sign that the demographic profile of the sport is changing, especially when it comes to the men’s game. Historically, “Whites Only” on the tennis courts didn’t just refer to the attire, as one sportswriter put it.

Concerted change can happen in the sport if efforts are made to achieve it, and not enough has happened to change the demographic profile of tennis. This is in stark contrast to other popular sports.

Black athletes make up almost three-quarters of the NBA’s players today, but in the 20th century. In the first half of the 20th century — until 1951 — major professional basketball was a white man’s game. The same could be said for professional football and baseball, which fielded the first black players of the modern era in 1946 and 1947, respectively.

These team sports have an advantage, however, that individual sports do not have when it comes to diversification. Black players in formerly white locker rooms became more dominant at the professional and collegiate levels in an era of broader political and social levels.

When black players began to participate in large numbers in previously excluded team sports, they literally “changed the game,” bringing a style of sport inspired by the culture learned in urban America.

And once that style of play took hold, professional basketball and football coaches, owners, and college coaches felt compelled to recruit more black athletes, especially at certain linebacker and wide receiver positions in football, where African-American players enjoyed what the culture encouraged. advantage” in their athleticism and playing style.

Black players in these sports had what I call “transactional leverage”: their skills were in such high demand that the cost of keeping black athletes out of locker rooms was outweighed by the value of getting them onto college and professional teams.

You can see this same phenomenon today with the young, athletic and mobile black quarterbacks who are changing the way the position is played. NFL coaches and scouts are looking for the next Patrick Mahomes or another Lamar Jackson at quarterback, a position previously off-limits to African-Americans.
Of course, professional tennis leaders have created programs to try to generate interest in communities of color. The United States Tennis Association built a network of youth programs pioneered by Arthur Ashe in the 1960s to bring the game to underserved communities. Those kinds of efforts are great, as far as they go. Sports experience at any level can be formative, even transformative, in the lives of young athletes.

But such experiences — however well-intentioned and well-funded they may be — are never enough to ensure broad access and opportunity at the highest levels of competition and achievement. That takes years of financial investment and intensive mentoring from an early age, the kind of instruction that Tiafoe received on her home tennis court and Williams received from her father. The exposure to the game that the USTA provides to young players is not enough to achieve the same results.

A checkered history of Boston with its greatest sports icon
These efforts do not entirely contradict the long and deeply entrenched tradition of Black exclusion in tennis culture, which cannot be overstated. It has prevented progressive change at all levels of the sport.
There is no pressure from tennis sports associations or other goalkeeper administrative authorities to make the game more accessible to black players. And to be honest, the sport is fundamentally defined by a kind of country club elitism that is antithetical to greater introspection. Or as a Vice writer put it, Tennis “remains perhaps the last global event that remains completely white in its sensibilities and participants.”

The segregation of American locker rooms in top-level team sports did not happen out of any sense of morality or fairness. It didn’t happen because it was ‘the right thing to do’.

League officials governing major sports — often under political pressure, broader societal changes, and lobbying by the black press and African-American leaders — increasingly found it advantageous to allow black players to showcase their talents earlier than usual in the “whites-only” majors. team sports

Instead, you have a genuine individual like Tiafoe, who is swimming in the current for all his incredible skills on the court, and almost alone, in tennis. In some ways, it was his poverty, not privilege, that gave him an unconventional path to the sport.
Many white tennis players say they grew up playing the sport; Tiafoe literally grew up on a tennis court, living with his father for a time in a spare office at the tennis facility his father helped maintain. His situation is unique, unlikely to be repeated.

There is, of course, a chicken-or-egg aspect to Black’s problem in tennis. There would be more black champions if African Americans had greater access to tennis courts, particularly in urban areas, along with proper training and equipment. And if the tennis world saw that more black champions could emerge from such settings, perhaps it would invest more in providing more opportunities for young players in those communities.

Could Tiafoe provide such a spark? He said he hopes he will be able to inspire other African-Americans to take up the sport. “At the end of the day I love that it’s Frances Tiafoe and that there are so many people of color playing tennis. That’s obviously the goal for me. That’s why I’m here trying pretty hard,” he told members of the press. his storied US Open run.

A laudable sentiment, and perhaps he will succeed. But everything I’ve learned from decades of studying the Black experience tells me his breakthrough won’t be enough to shake off decades of institutional culture in a sport that has historically been stubborn to change.