Three Generations of Black Tennis, Yes We Can!

The Obama Presidency rested on democratic ideals of equality and justice for all. It reinforced a liberal utopia put forth by the constitution, where race, gender, sexual identity were embraced, not constantly challenged. Eight years later Trump’s win and white supremacy agenda prompted President Obama to question whether the country was ready for his presidency. He said, “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe. Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.” It is clear. We did not live in a post racial world during Obama’s Presidency and we do not now. We are not beyond the remnants of slavery and oppression.  Black bodies, regardless of origin or ethnicity are scrutinized, policed, systematically oppressed.

Twenty five years after OJ Simpson allegedly said, “I’m not black. I’m OJ,” there still is no transcending race in sports. Though we worship, indeed deify athletes, their skill and celebrity do not negate their possession of melanin or protect them from racism. This is no more true than in the NFL where President Trump has encouraged, some would allege bullied, the league to strip players of their right to protest or voice political views. Colin Kaepernick. Eric ReidMalcolm Jenkins. This is not confined to football. Tennis too has a long history of exclusion and injustice.

On  August 25, 1950, tennis was not welcoming of Althea Gibson. Nevertheless, she broke the color line. Gibson’s  tenure was tenuous. The sport was ‘shamed‘ into extending her an invitation to Nationals (US Open). She would go on to be the first black player to win: the French Open (1956), Wimbledon (1957–58), and the  U.S. Open (1957–58). “If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me,” she wrote in her 1958 memoir “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.”

Retiring more than once as a result of injustices, she gave politics, music, basketball and golf a whirl, becoming the first black player to compete on the women’s professional golf tour.  She eventually left tennis to make money, writing an autobiography, singing, acting in a movie with John Wayne and playing exhibition tennis for the Harlem Globetrotters. Though she did not die penniless, she spent much of her life ostracized. Even her NY Times obituary attempted to denigrate her legacy describing her as, “the gangly Harlem street urchin… a street brawling chronic truant and eight grade dropout who haunted pool halls and bowling lanes and made the back alleys her home.”

In death, the 5′ 11” natural athlete has finally gotten the recognition she long deserved. The US Postal Service honored Gibson with the 36th stamp in its Black Heritage Series in 2013.  The United States Tennis Association (USTA) will immortalize Gibson with a statue at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, the home of the US Open.

Owner of many firsts, her journey was difficult. The sport must have felt like an ill-fitting pilled sweater for such a talented and free-spirited woman. For her visibility was the least of it. Impact and equality was the goal. Part of a rich history of black tennis dating back to 1898, she trained at Dr. Robert Walter Johnson‘s American Tennis Association Junior Development Program for African-American youth. Like Gibson, Bob Ryland was hampered by whites only tennis tournaments. Nine years after Gibson broke the color line, he became the first black man to play professional tennis.

Gibson and later Ryland made way for many. Arthur Ash (1969), Evonne Goolagong (1971), Yannick Noah (1977), Zina Garrison (1982), Lori McNeil (1983), Katrina Adams (1988), Chanda Rubin (1991), Leander Paes (1991), Venus Williams (1994), Serena Williams (1995),  James Blake (1999), Dustin Brown (2002),   Sania Mirza (2003), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2004), Gaël Monfils (2004), Donald Young (2004), Madison Keys (2009), Sloane Stephens (2010), Vicky Duval (2010), Sachia Vickery (2011), Taylor Townsend (2012), Nicholas Kyrgios (2013), Naomi Osaka (2013), Elias Ymer (2014), Francis Tiafoe (2015), Françoise Abanda (2015), Félix Auger-Aliassime (2017), Whitney Osuigwe (2017), Corey Gauff (2018) and countless more to come.

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If Gibson is the first professional black tennis player, Ashe, Goolagong, Yannick, Garrison, McNeil and Adams  are the first generation  (1969-89) of her fearless legacy. They played during turbulent times. From blatant racist acts to the more insidious ones, including bias and micro aggressions; their road was not easy.  Their presence roared their conviction even when their words were few. Regardless of country of origin, ethnicity, ranking or playing style, these black bodies were not to be denied.  They left an indelible mark on the sport: Arthur Ashe Stadium and Museum, USTA Presidency, Tennis Channel Commentator, Hall of Fame, Tennis Academy Founder, Coach…

The second generation of black tennis players (1990-2010) is our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Rubin, Paes, Venus, Serena,  Blake, Brown, Mirza, Young,  Tsonga, Monfils, Keys, Stephens and Duval, have different games, careers and approaches to ‘playing while black’. Whether militant, laissez-faire or reactionary, this generation’s success forced the sport to check its racist norms.

The third generation (2011+) has not known the sport sans black bodies. They grapple with social media and sponsorship/branding woes; these youngin’ bear the race burden often unwittingly. When the old guard affix outdated and racists tropes upon them, they find ways to check them, disregard them or use their words as a rally call, especially online. Vickery, Townsend, Kyrgios, Osaka, Ymer, Tiafoe, Abanda, Auger-Aliassime and Corey Gauff confidently strut onto the court knowing they belong.

Of course the William sister’s exceptional talent and longevity bridge them squarely in two generations. Their accomplished careers have enabled them to push the sport forward and raise the  profile and value of women’s tennis. They wore braids and beads (1999), boycotted a racist tournament (2002), wore body suites (2002), fought for equal prize money (2006), forced Hawkeye implementation (2006), crip walked (2012), championed the WTA post-secondary education program (2015), encouraged penalty for racist/sexist language (2016-7), promoted body positivity (2017), rallied for protected seeding/ranking post pregnancy (2018)…

The three generations of black professional tennis players spawned by the daring Althea Gibson is no ignis fatus. Her progeny are no illusion, no flitting mirage. These players have revolutionized and saved the game. If Serena and Venus are Gibson’s doppelgänger’s in talent, longevity and courage, Cori Gauff is her castle in the sky, her dream of unfixed possibility, not hindered by race, gender or sexuality. Just imagine Gibson on an easy chair enjoying the latest Williams match, Stephen/Keys playing in the US Open Final or Gauff winning the French Open Girls Juniors Championship. Gibson made this possible. Once an exclusive and restrictive sport, black girls and boys are on courts around the world freely swinging into their futures. They have Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of tennis, to thank! Maybe, the USTA will invite the first black President of America to unveil the Gibson statue.

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