Bob Ryland (3rd from right) remains one of the game's true pioneers, teaching tennis into his 90s.
© David Novich
By David Novich, special to USTA.com
More than 50 years have passed since BobRyland broke the color barrier, becoming the first African-American to play professional tennis -- yet his legacy and impact on the sport continues today. On January 26, USTA Eastern presented Ryland with its Lifetime Achievement Award at the section’s Annual Awards Dinner in White Plains.
"Bob was a pioneer and way ahead of his time," said Esu Ma’at, president of the New York Tennis Association, the New York Chapter of the American Tennis Association. "He was an inspiration to all African American tennis players."
Ryland was born in Chicago in 1920 and was an outstanding junior tennis player. In 1939, he won the ATA junior championships and the Illinois High School championships. After graduation, he attended Wayne State University, where he became one of the first two black players to compete in the NCAA championships and made it to the semifinals.
Ryland became one of the world’s best tennis players despite the presence of segregation in the United States; until the final years of his career, he was prohibited from competing in the major tournaments.
Still, Bob managed to give back both on and off the court.
He has taught tennis to scores of players over the years, including Venus and Serena Williams, Bill Cosby, and David Dinkins. He has also spoken to kids at the Harlem Armory, USTA Tennis Teachers Conference and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Now in his 90s, Ryland can still be seen at both the Riverside Park Clay and 119th Street courts in New York City – never missing an opportunity to give tips and encouraging advice to neighborhood players.