African American Tennis Players

Why have we lost 290,000 black tennis players in the last 5 years? Is there really systemic racism in U.S. tennis? The USTA's Diversity & Inclusion programs don't seem to work for the black community. Why is that? What can be done? We are looking for answers. (Bear with us, this is the longest article we have ever posted.)

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Disappearing Black Tennis Players
Why are the USTA's Diversity & Inclusion efforts not working?

 

By Rich Neher

INTRODUCTION

Over the past 21 years, I've been running over 2,500 drop-in tennis events in Southern California. It never occurred to me to find out why, during all that time, I had less than 10 Black tennis players join our group. If you ask members of our current group about an African American player by the name of Ike, they will describe him as the nicest guy, one of the best players, and with a super attitude.

Thinking back whether I had ever seen racial discrimination as it relates to any ethnicity playing tennis here, I have to say no. However, I witnessed quite a surreal situation during the Davis Cup tie between the USA and the UK in San Diego's Petco Park in 2014. Remember, the one they played on clay for some weird reason. Sam Querrey was about to begin his match against Andy Murray. On the U.S. bench: The Bryan Bros., Captain Jim Courier, and another support person. Donald Young approached to sit with them. Everyone on that bench got up and left so Donald was sitting alone. I may have been the only person in that stadium who noticed that. There may have been a good reason for everyone to get up. But that was the only time in the last 2 decades where the thought of racism had crossed my mind.

A USPTA pro friend of mine told me recently, "The general demographics of tennis are that it is a sport for rich, white guys. I think if the sport wanted to grow it should broaden its base. The most successful diversity program in tennis was started by Richard Williams when he taught his daughters to play tennis. I'm not big fans of them, but I think they have been great for the sport and they have been tremendous role models for other girls and minorities. By comparison, many of the programs started by the associations are diversity programs in name only."

Hmm...

For this article I set out to find answers to 3 questions:

1. Is there systematic racism in U.S. Tennis as it relates to African Americans?

2. Why is it that so few African Americans play tennis?

3. Why are the USTA's D&I efforts apparently not working when it comes to attracting African Americans to tennis?

Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images North America

1. IS THERE SYSTEMATIC RACISM IN U.S. TENNIS AS IT RELATES
TO AFRICAN AMERICANS?

The fact that I had not personally seen any evidence of systematic racism in tennis doesn't mean it won't exist, of course. It may in fact mean that I live and play tennis in that white bubble which is called the San Fernando Valley, northwest of Los Angeles. That story will probably change as soon as I ventured out into the South and East L.A. / Compton regions.

Reading the article "In tennis, a long history of white elitism has not stopped black women from winning" published 2 years ago on PBS.org, encouraged me to dig a little deeper. The author (Kamala Kelkar) quotes Caitlin Thompson, publisher of the tennis magazine Racquet, with saying, “traditionalists” — often white people in the most lucrative positions in tennis — stoke debates that distract from and diminish female talent, to remind people of their power. It’s a familiar dynamic in a sport where women have to play by rules that were made without their input. We'll get to the subject of "White Elitism" a little later under the USTA's Diversity & Inclusion efforts.

When I sent out the question "If you are a person of color and have experienced discrimination in the world of tennis, please email me with details." a few weeks ago, I expected an avalanche of replies with all sorts of horror stories. But that was not the case. Yes, I did get emails from some of our readers writing about incidents of racism in their lives. However, the majority of those incidents happened between 15 and 25 years ago. I have only posted 2 of those emails, one from a UK coach by the name of Caroline Gossage, and one from Peter Townes, ED of Washington, DC-based Next Level Tennis and Education. We wrote about this organization helping underprivileged kids in our February 2020 issue.

While I've decided to spare you many details of acts of racism that happened 20 years ago, I still want to list some of the accusations from black tennis players that came through from those emails and communications with some of the USTA Section D&I Coordinators.

  • A Black league player in Southern California was called "Monkey" and "Nigger" by his opponent. He reported it to the other team's Captain and to the League Coordinator but nothing happened.
     

  • I think that currently in the workplace, on the court, at the store, etc, persons of color experience more in terms of microaggressions.
     

  • Most of the time it (racism) was in small doses and microaggressions. People would say or do little things that showed you that you didn't belong. White kids would cheer extra loud for my opponent. The better I got, the more they rooted against me. People would stare when I arrived at tournaments, especially nationals. People would talk behind my back saying I was just athletic and not very skilled which is the typically coded language associated with black athletes.
     

  • Covert racism is the most common form in tennis as its subtle so many people don’t realize that it's happening. Most of it comes forward in the form of actions and comments.

And then there was this Colorado tennis pro who pointed to a national tennis teaching celebrity who is regularly hired by the USPTA for speaking engagements. "He is offensive in his presentations. His humor says that Marc Bey (black pro) spent most of his life in jail. He also will joke that two black pros had sex with the same woman on the same night and then they didn’t know who was the father of the resulting baby." I was scratching my head whether I should file this letter under blatant racism or under white elitism.

WTA player Sachia Vickery was quoted in The Undefeated as saying, "Being black, I’ve been called monkey, slave, the N-word, housekeeper, the help — pretty much every racist name out there on planet Earth." There are numerous examples of articles about Black tennis pros who have experienced a lot of racism in their lives and their careers.

Answers for Question 1 about systematic racism in tennis

After reading many emails and reviewing countless articles about the subject my answer is: It depends. Are we talking about recreational players or touring pros?

 

When it comes to regular, everyday players, it appears Americans have changed somewhat. The blatant acts of racism African Americans have experienced 15-20 years ago seem to be a thing of the past. Nowadays it's microaggressions, words whispered behind your back. Still painful when you're on the receiving end of this nastiness. So, I conclude there is hope for race relations in U.S.A. tennis. Don't expect direct acts of racism during league matches and on public courts. And if you witness them, do something about it. Call out the offenders. Show character and integrity.

When it comes to the lives of WTA/ATP/ITF touring pros, things appear far less positive. I've been reading stories about real nasty crap thrown at Black tennis pros who are not star players yet and who do their best to eke out a living in this lucrative, but difficult sport. I've received samples of those messages on Instagram that were so horrible, so vile, it's hard to believe they were written by human beings. Something tells me that often those racist attacks are hurled at players by people with no class and plenty of money to lose bets on that player's matches. It is clear to me that the attacks really started and grew out of control when people were able to bet on tennis matches. Thank you, ITF and Sportsradar, for making that possible. Prohibit betting in tennis and the conversation has a chance to become civilized again.

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2. WHY IS IT THAT SO FEW AFRICAN AMERICANS PLAY TENNIS?

Disclaimer: This chapter refers to data I picked out of the 2020 TIA U.S. Tennis Participation Report. While I have in the past oftentimes referred to TIA participation data collected by Florida-based Sports Marketing Surveys USA as bogus, it is currently the only data available. I still think it's unreliable data but try and figure out how many African American tennis players are there in the United States. No one knows. TIA data regularly overstates tennis participation by a large margin in my opinion. As a matter of fact, when I shared the number with an executive from a tennis organization, she replied, "I can already see why you take the number you have with skepticism. There would be no need for a task force if all was that well." As a reminder, I found the TIA numbers questionable after talking with an executive from Sports Marketing Surveys USA and learned that all their data is based on outdated assumptions and collected with tiny samples that are not representative in my opinion.

The aforementioned friend of mine once said, "I think SMS is a cookie-cutter market research firm. They develop a template and try to replicate it as often as possible. They rely on having customers who are smart enough to know the value of research and not engaged enough to demand quality research. That is the TIA. I think SMS is probably a credible firm but the TIA is responsible for allowing them to do substandard work." There you have it, people.

So, my quest for finding how many African Americans play tennis in the United States ended up with the following data derived from the TIA and from Wikipedia. To make it a little easier to identify data for the Black population I counted Black and non-Black without identifying White/Brown/Asians/others.

U.S. Tennis Participation                       

U.S. Population

Black U.S. Population

Total TIA Tennis Players

Black Tennis Players

Core Tennis Players

Core Black Tennis Players

331 MM   =  100%

  44 MM    = 13.4%

17.68 MM =  100%

1.64 MM   = 9.27%

9.15 MM   =   100%

0.79 MM    = 8.63%

up 0.6% annually​

up 1.8% annually

down 1.2% over the past 5 years

down 15% over the past 5 years

down 7.6% over the past 5 years

down 25% over the past 5 years

The data shows that overall we somehow lost about 290,000 African American tennis players in the last 5 years. Remarkably, 260,000 of those were Core Players. Why is that?

I think a number of factors are responsible for this phenomenon. Since I concluded in the previous chapter that racism is not likely to play a big role for African American tennis players anymore, I decided to look at other factors

A. Tennis is not a welcoming sport

I wrote about this a lot in the past 5 years. Measured against sports like pickleball, tennis is quite unwelcoming to new players. Imagine the difficulties a White or Asian person has trying to break into a club clique as a new player and multiply this by 10 for a Black person. When someone approaches a pickleball group it is likely one of the "pickleballers" will greet that person with a welcoming message, such as "Come on in, we have a paddle for you." Can you imagine that EVER happening in tennis? You will most likely be totally ignored, I guess especially if you're Black. I learned in SoCal that tennis players tend to stick to their group and are reluctant to open it up for others.

Btw, I can imagine calling tennis the "white sport" sounds quite offensive to many African Americans.

B. There are not enough tennis facilities in African American neighborhoods

Do we really expect a Black person interested in playing tennis to drive through town and go into a club where everything looks expensive and smells of elitism? Not a chance. If there were more clubs and public facilities in underserved neighborhoods, we would be one step closer to increasing the attractiveness of tennis for our Black population.

C. There are not enough Black tennis coaches in America

Yep, I said it. A concerted effort is needed by both PTR and USPTA to increase the number of Black members. Goes hand in hand with the need to also have more Black speakers at their conferences. I suggest working with the ATA, Black Tennis Hall of Fame, and others to get that accomplished.

D. The USTA pays only lip service to diversity and inclusion

USTA National and many (not all) USTA sections have a D&I Coordinator of some sorts on staff. But is that really all that's needed to be effective in reaching out to underserved communities? I'll talk about that subject in more detail in the following chapter.

E. Youth tennis is expensive

Frank Giampaolo points out the cost of developing a competitive child and uses the example of a 16-year old boy who practices 20 hours per week and has a national ranking in the top 40 as $10,560 per quarter. He also mentions that most full time/boarding academy attendees' expenses are far greater.

Money magazine had an article titled "Think Your Kid's Soccer League Is Too Expensive? Here's Which Youth Sports Cost the Most (And Least."

Chris Widmaier - Managing Dir

The author says, "Per the families, who represented all 50 states and a range of sociodemographic backgrounds, the average annual cost to put one child in a single sport was $693. (The child had to be under 18 and have had a minimum of 35 practice, training, or competition days within the specified 12-month period to be considered for the survey.)"

That rate varies, of course, from sport to sport but take a look at the next chart which lists minimum and maximum amounts spent per sport.

Wow. Tennis places on top here. In other words, tennis can be quite expensive and therefore out of reach for many families. The last chart was created by the Aspen Institute, demonstrating how much the average family is spending annually per sport by race.

Looking at those numbers explains a family's decision to get their child into a less expensive sport like Basketball or Tackle Football. 

 

Luckily, many non-profit organizations step in and provide inexpensive lessons (and often much more) for underprivileged kids. But that is definitely not enough looking at the size of our country and the number of families that deserve help. 

And, think about it, how many very talented Black children are not getting a chance of playing tennis because it's out of reach financially? How many potential championship players are we leaving by the wayside every year? And think about all those parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, that could be pulled into tennis if we make it more affordable in underserved areas across the country.

Answers for Question 2 why so few African Americans play tennis

"Come on in, we have a racquet for you?" We can agree on the fact that other sports are more welcoming than tennis but we don't have to accept that. We can do something about it. Create an army of Tennis Ambassadors to go out into Black communities - affluent as well as underprivileged ones - and promote tennis as a sport for all. No more calling it the "white sport." (All-England Club, are you reading this?) As an avid fan of Wimbledon, I don't give a hoot how the players are dressed. As long as it is not white!"

We need more tennis facilities in underprivileged neighborhoods. SCTA, we don't need a megacenter in Carson, we need a lot more small tennis centers throughout Southern California!

The same applies to other USTA sections building or planning huge mega tennis centers. And, of course, the mothership of all money-wasting, colossal facilities, Lake Nona. Imagine how many small, two-court public facilities could have been built throughout the U.S. for $70 MM.

We need more Black tennis professionals. PTR and USPTA are being challenged to create a plan to make this happen. They may even be encouraged to work together on this. 

The USTA needs to make some changes at the Board level. See the next chapter.

How can we make tennis affordable for kids in underserved areas and attract more people to teach the sport? I'm challenging the USTA, PTR, USPTA, and TIA to create an initiative with a staff person. 

Assignment: To raise grants from industry, individuals, and government.

Mission 1: To provide thousands of scholarships for underprivileged kids who want to learn tennis in facilities and academies.

Mission 2: To provide funds for African American men and women who want to learn how to teach tennis and start their own business as tennis pros.

I strongly suggest creating this initiative that raises funds and enables more Black kids to start loving tennis and enables African Americans to say yes, I want to be able to teach tennis and reach out to my community and get them involved in that fabulous, safe, sport.

3. WHY ARE THE USTA'S DIVERSITY & INCLUSION EFFORTS NOT WORKING WHEN IT COMES TO ATTRACTING AFRICAN AMERICANS TO TENNIS?

It took me a while to find an answer to that question. Bear with me, folks. I'll explain step-by-step.

First, I looked at the USTA and its 17 Sections to get familiar with their outreach in the areas of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). USTA National's longtime Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, D.A.Abrams, left last year and the work is currently being done by Bill Leong and Donna Dozier Gordon. Most sections have a staff member assigned to that task, but not all of them. It seems that Southern California, Southwest, Hawaii, Caribbean, and Missouri Valley don't. At least those positions are not listed on their staff webpages.

I came across an article posted on the USTA Florida website, written by a brilliant individual whose opinion I completely share. His name is Ronald Lyons, Florida's Diversity & Outreach Coordinator. The article is titled Amplifying Calls for Change within the Tennis Community.

Ronald writes, "As a Black man who was fortunate enough to have learned to play tennis growing up and is now working within the sport, I have directly witnessed how the lack of diversity has negatively impacted the game that I love so much. For instance, consistently attending coaches’ trainings with no Black coaches in sight or having continuous conversations with Black league captains that say the only way they can play on a team is if they serve as the captain. For tennis to grow and be more inclusive, these types of issues need to change, and for these issues to change, they must be confronted head-on."

He continues, "During the peak of when the Black Lives Matter movement protests were occurring across the country, a group of staff members met to discuss their thoughts about the state of our country and how we feel that USTA Florida has been supporting us during this difficult time. While having that conversation, there seemed to be a consensus that our tennis community is not doing much to help move our country or USTA forward. With the segregation that our sport allows, we saw the experiences within our organization mirror the experiences that many Blacks are facing throughout the country. It was at that moment we decided it was time to take action to ensure all the Black voices within our tennis community were heard – to create an ultimate shift in our sport."

Ronald then introduces us to a Florida Section project called AMPLIFY. He describes the reasons for creating the project: "With the segregation that our sport allows, we saw the experiences within our organization mirror the experiences that many Blacks are facing throughout the country. It was at that moment we decided it was time to take action to ensure all the Black voices within our tennis community were heard – to create an ultimate shift in our sport.

The AMPLIFY Project was established to help amplify the Black voices in our tennis community so we can provide a more inclusive environment within USTA Florida. Many Black people do not feel welcome to play or participate in tennis and our AMPLIFY Project team’s goal is to help change that. Every facet of the USTA Florida organization will be impacted by AMPLIFY’s initiative: we want to convey that Black people can not only play and excel in tennis, but that there is always room for more."

“USTA Florida announced today the creation of AMPLIFY to advocate for social justice and equality for all,” said USTA Florida President Clark Higgs. “It is particularly important that we do so because we are aware, but do not readily admit, that tennis is not now, nor has it been, immune to discrimination against all of our minority populations. Every tennis player should strive to welcome everybody to the game of tennis and be inclusive in every respect.”

“I’m proud of our staff for having difficult and uncomfortable discussions about what we need to do better to address racial inequality in tennis. But conversations alone aren’t enough. We must work with our partners to listen and commit to meaningful action. We must make it a priority every day in everything we do. Our team is eager to do that,” added Laura Bowen, USTA Florida Executive Director.

I'd say kudos to Ronald Lyons, the Florida section, and the team actively involved in that project. It also shows me that the Florida ED is creating an environment of creativity and encouragement that makes such an initiative possible. I'll be watching their progress and report about it in the coming months.

Next, I decided to look at the USTA Florida Board of Directors and its racial diversity. Much to my surprise, the 9-member Board features only 1 African American. Even more impressive when looking at the significance of the AMPLIFY project.

Now I became even more curious and looked at the racial composition of all USTA Boards. As I said before, for the sake of this article, I included Brown/Asian/other minorities under White. I wanted to know how many African Americans are on those Boards. It was difficult at times to really capture how many Board members each section and USTA National have. Some websites are often of no help, featuring a handful of names and a photo with 10 people in it. Be that as it is, here is the list as far as I could decipher the online information:

So, just over 8% of USTA Board members on the national and sectional levels are African Americans. Does that sound like the USTA is serious about making our sport more attractive to black Americans?

My next task was to find out how PTR, USPTA, ITF, and TIA fared as far as Board diversity is concerned. Again, the challenge was to find the real numbers, especially for USPTA. For them, I counted the Executive Committee (2 officers from each of the 17 sections) and the National Board of Directors. Here's the list.

So, just 6.7% of those Board members are African Americans. Can you say "white elitism" and very little diversity? Look at the TIA. 21 Whites and no Blacks. A lot of room for improvement, folks. I don't even want to get into the missing females on those Boards. Again, TIA: 18 men, 3 women. Ouch. Also, I got an email that the USPTA "...pushed out the only Hispanic member of the Executive Committee. There are 42 total members of the Executive Committee. No Hispanic board member since the mid-80s." Not sure if it's true but that is information I get to another time, maybe.

At this time I want to point out that the USTA's Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Bill Leong, was very helpful in getting a picture of this organization's D&I activities.

Bill pointed to a set of USTA-created guides titles Engagement Guides. "The Engagement Guides have been an on-going resource for Sections to tap into for the past several years.  We work closely with Section D&I teams, and others within the section educate them around all the resources we are providing.  The Engagement Guides have been primarily used to engage and attract a new generation of youth diverse participants." As an example of those Engagement Guides, here is the link to downloading the African American Engagement Guide.

Bill added, "We've had a multi-faceted approach to promoting tennis in Black communities across the country. Our main delivery systems are through the School program, NJTL, and CTA network.  We have also forged national strategic partnerships with such organizations as the ATA, and Jack and Jill of America, Inc., to name a few.  We've also hosted the HBCU Championships combine and Winter Invitational events at the USTA National Campus."

 

On the Player Development front, Bill mentioned the following implemented initiatives.

 

  • Hosted Diverse Coach Symposiums over the course of 2 years

  • Launched a Diverse Young Coaches Mentorship Program

  • Committed to the Intentional diversification of Faculty Coaches

  • Expanded the Excellence Teams Initiative 

  • Offered D&I  Multicultural Player Grants

 

However, I want to urge Bill to take a look at the USTA website and click on the images right there on the front page. Try to find ANY African American tennis players in those pictures. It took me 7 clicks before I saw just the legs of a Black man. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ronald Lyons said it best toward the end of his article: "As of this writing, one issue we have discussed is the lack of diversity when it comes to tennis coaches. Black coaches are consistently overlooked and underappreciated. AMPLIFY wants to decrease the racial diversity gap of tennis coaches by guaranteeing more opportunities for them to display their capabilities. We also want to provide Black coaches with professional development, so they can gain even more versatile experience in coaching especially in facility marketing, tournament directing, and mentoring athletes. Our hope is that by increasing the visibility, the opportunities, and the development of Black coaches we will create a stronger base of diverse coaches within our sport.

We also want to amplify the voices of our Black tennis players. Not only are they constantly neglected, but in many cases, they are also not afforded the same opportunities as other players in the sport. To limit this prejudice, we must eliminate the various obstacles that prevent Black people from participating in tennis and bring the sport to their communities. By hosting more tennis tournaments and events in more diverse communities, it will lead to more Black people being exposed to tennis. For example, how does one pick out a good tennis racquet if they have never seen one before?"

Kudos again to USTA Florida and Ronald Lyons. They get it. They are smart enough to realize what's wrong and try their best to correct the situation. It would behoove most other USTA Sections to take a good, hard look at AMPLIFY in my opinion.

Answers for Question 3 about the USTA's D&I efforts

The USTA has to become serious about encouraging a lot more African American friends to pick up a tennis racquet. The support has to start at the Board level. Black tennis professionals, business owners, players, know their community and give the best input into how to increase the number of players.

Likewise, USPTA, PTR, TIA have to make a concerted effort to bring more African Americans to our sport.

It can be done, folks. Let's get to it.

Conclusion

I tasked myself with finding out why tennis lost 290,000 African Americans in the last 5 years and what can be done to recapture that market and make considerable inroads in making the sport attractive to the black community. Here's a brief recap of the actions I view as doable to successfully reach out to that community.

1. Become a "racism repellent"

When you see acts of covert or blatant racism, show character and integrity and stand up against it. When you see acts of microaggression, call the aggressor out on it. Don't let racist morons ruin the fact that we are such a beautiful, diverse, nation. This is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind over two hundred years ago.

2. Help to turn tennis into a welcoming sport

When you see newcomers, beginners, walk up to them. Welcome them to our sport and ask them how YOU can help them. Play with them. Introduce them to your friends. Play your part to make sure they are having a good time and stay in the sport. Trust me, you will feel extremely good doing that! Oh, and yes, stop calling tennis the "white sport."

3. Petition USTA, TIA, PTR, and USPTA

Not only should they create an "army of Tennis Ambassadors" but these organizations have to create a fundraising machine that will be able to provide thousands of scholarships to Black children in underserved neighborhoods with funds to learn the sport and pursue it for whatever goals they may have. Tennis is an expensive sport and without this initiative, we may not be able to overcome that barrier. The same machine can develop initiatives to entice African American males and females to get excited about teaching tennis and start their own business doing just that.

4. Identify Black leaders for Board positions

You know they are out there. In tennis, other sports, business, government. Find them and put them on the Boards of USTA National and Sectional.

Don't know any names? I suggest you contact e.g. Peter Townes in Washington, DC. (Next Level Tennis & Education), Susan Klumpner in Westmont, Illinois (The Ace Project), or Toni Wiley in Boston (Sportsmen's Tennis & Enrichment Center). Each of them would be an asset for any Board position. And they know people...

NOTE: Throughout this article, I have done my best to capitalize the word BLACK because I believe it's the right thing to do since it doesn't depict a color but an ethnicity. At the same time, I also capitalized the word White, same as Asian. For a better explanation on this subject, please refer to this article by the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Please send me your comments and opinions here.

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