Charges of Racism Now a Tennis Problem
(This article was originally published by The New York Times in February of 1991.)On the surface, last year marked a renaissance for American tennis.But behind the headlines of the Davis Cup victory, the all-American men's final at the United States Open and an all-American women's final at Wimbledon, there were disturbing rumblings about racism in the game.Last summer, Shoal Creek Country Club's exclusionary membership practices flared into a national embarrassment for golf, forcing a new awareness of the way the pro tour conducted its business. Several blacks in the tennis community voiced frustration last summer that similar abuses had not led to commensurate changes in the policies, procedures and attitudes in the tennis establishment.Arthur Ashe, the former Wimbledon and United States Open champion, said that administrators of the United States Tennis Association, whose mandate it is to promote the game and develop young talent, held "a latent fear" of black players' potential. "They're worried that if we made our mark, we'd take over the sport," Ashe said. "They're worried that we'd start producing tennis players like we have basketball players."William Washington, the father and coach of MaliVai, who at No. 97 in the official Association of Tennis Professionals world ranking is the top-ranked black American man, found fault with the U.S.T.A.'s training programs for inner-city black youngsters and its slack response to incidents of possible racism on the national junior circuit. "The U.S.T.A.'s answer to handling racism is to try and sweep it under the rug," Washington said.Although the reported incidents on the junior tennis circuit, which includes four divisions for players 18 years old and under, happened between three and 10 years ago, the charges of institutional racism in pro tennis are current and, according to several black players, have been happening for years. These charges are in many cases subjective and unprovable, involving the assignment of less desirable practice times, courts and balls, and the pairing of black opponents against each other in the early rounds of tournaments, but in the light of Shoal Creek they deserve thought and attention.U.S.T.A. officials dispute charges of racism and defend the organization's recent record in involving minority players in its programs. "What Arthur said flies against the facts of the matter, and I don't think he thought it out," said David Markin, the association's president. "The U.S.T.A. is color blind when it comes to trying to bring minorities into the sport of tennis. We've tried to involve many other minorities as well, Chinese and Japanese and Hispanics."Recent U.S.T.A. initiatives, however, are partly a response to past neglect. "In a study we did in 1988," said Ron Woods, the director of the association's player development program, "we found that the average national junior player came from a family that was making $80,000. Our main goal was to get more kids from every background playing tennis and to keep them playing. But, indirectly, we were trying to address racial inequities from the past."One case in point involves Bryan Shelton, No. 121 in the world and second among American black players, who tells a story of country club racism that predates Shoal Creek by 10 years. "I entered a junior tournament at the Vestavia Country Club," said the 24-year-old Shelton, referring to a club in Birmingham, Ala. "Going into the tournament, the officials there didn't know who I was. Then, I ended up winning it."The next year they changed it to an invitation-only tournament, and I didn't receive an invitation. It turned into a big deal, not just with me, but with other players -- not just black, either -- who rallied behind me. Vestavia ended up losing their Southern Tennis Association sanction the following year. But they eventually got it back."In October 1988, William Washington brought his grievances against the U.S.T.A. to a Congressional subcommittee on employment opportunity. He charged that his younger son, Mashiska, was unfairly denied access to playing in the U.S.T.A. National Indoor 14-and-under tournament in 1988 as a representative of the Western Tennis Association (the Western and Southern associations are two of 17 U.S.T.A. sections in the nation). Mashiska's No. 4 ranking in the region should have reserved him a spot in the tournament, but a Western spokesman said his application arrived late. Washington also questioned the U.S.T.A.'s handling of a previous national tournament in 1981 held in Birmingham, Ala., where his daughter, Michaela, was bused across town to a different club to play her matches."The U.S.T.A. is not divined to help minority kids," Washington said this summer. Washington made his statements even though MaliVai is a member of the U.S.T.A.'s Touring Pro Team, which provides coaching and assists young players in making the transition to the demands of the pro tour."When talking about Mr. Washington, you have to realize that he has had many years of acrimonious dealings with the U.S.T.A.," Markin said. "For as long as I have known him, Mr. Washington has always been angry. Anytime something has gone wrong regarding the U.S.T.A. and his kids -- and like any large organization, we've had our administrative foulups -- he's charged it was racism. As intelligent a man and as fine a coach as he is, Mr. Washington would be a large help to the U.S.T.A. if he worked with us instead of branding us racists."Benny Sims, who is black and a national coach with the U.S.T.A., defends the player development program, which the U.S.T.A. initiated in the spring of 1988. A lot of the grievances that are being made date back to before the development program started, Sims said. "At that time, the U.S.T.A. was a broad-based organization whose primary concern was to introduce tennis to as many youngsters as possible. Now it's more specialized," he said.The U.S.T.A. points out that Chanda Rubin, a 14-year-old from Louisiana who is black, is a member of the 18-player national team, and three blacks are members of the 12-player touring pro program: Stacey Martin, Jeri Ingram and MaliVai Washington. Of the 12 black players in the top 100 in the national junior rankings, 8 attended the association's developmental camps.Still, Sims said, "The people who are going to have to assume the responsibility for building black players are black parents and coaches."On the pro tours, many black players are aware of an undercurrent of racial tension. Some choose to acknowledge it, while others say it never comes to mind."Most of the racism I've encountered is under the surface," said Todd Nelson, who is 29 years old and once held a world ranking of 56, but is now No. 489. "If you're looking for it, you feel it. It's there in the scheduling of matches, the practice court time and the balls you're given. But if I get a bad break on the court -- like a bad line call -- I don't think it's because I'm black."Kenneth Lee, 22, who plays in the minor satellite tournaments beneath the A.T.P. main tour, accused tournament officials of pairing blacks against one another in early rounds so they would knock each other out."A lot of us meet in the early rounds," Lee said. "There are around 11 black men playing on the world circuit and they always seem to be playing each other. Statistically, it doesn't seem right."Lee seems alone in his contention, but other black players mentioned the cultural wear and tear of traveling and competing on a tour dominated by white players and white fans."If you grow up listening to rap or African music, it's going to take some time to adjust to hearing country music," said Yannick Noah, the African-born Frenchman who once was the No. 3-ranked player in the world and has since slipped to No. 142. "I don't want it to be taken that you have to live in a white way if you're black. But there is something in there that needs to be thought about.""Every week people come up to me at tournaments and call me Shelton or MaliVai," Nelson said. "I don't even look like those guys. I see this as being a small bit of racism. It's discouraging. The fans aren't looking to see the person. Fans don't go up to Chinese players and ask for Michael Chang's autograph or they don't go up to white players and ask for John McEnroe's."Then there was the struggle of Zina Garrison, now the No. 10 player in the world, to attain racquet and clothing endorsements. These deals are considered a given for a top-10 player, but Garrison couldn't find a contract until she became the first black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to reach the Wimbledon final last year. Then Reebok signed her."Zina just didn't match the Madison Avenue paradigm of the cute blonde," Ashe said.Some of the black pros' frustration has spilled over onto one another, a detrimental byproduct of battling perceived racism. Last summer, Lee and Nelson suggested that MaliVai Washington had distanced himself from other black players on the tour by working with U.S.T.A. coaches. And Nelson lashed out at Ashe."There's a negative feedback coming from Ashe," said Nelson. "Personally, I don't think he's helping young black players by saying to them, 'Stay in school. Get your education,' and then he raves about the newest white teen-age sensation. Maybe he feels he's better than us because he had it tougher and he made it to a very high echelon of the game.""I don't try to compare what happened to me with what happens to them," Ashe said. "When I started there were legal barriers. I knew that the world wouldn't do me any favors, that it didn't like me, that it would barely tolerate me."If they want to throw away college to be the next McEnroe, I'm not going to be a party to it."It is not surprising that racial accord is elusive in a sport that, once solely the bastion of the country club set, is now openly played by members of minority groups on city courts.As Sims said, "Tennis is just a microcosm of life."But if the United States hopes to remain at the top of the game, it seems certain that more black players, like J. J. Jackson and Chanda Rubin, who were No. 1 in the national boys' and girls' 14-and-under rankings in 1989 -- the first time in history that two blacks held the top spot in the same year in the U.S.T.A. junior rankings -- will need to emerge.