Remembering Bob Ryland
USTA Eastern mourns the loss of tennis legend Bob Ryland, who passed away August 2, a little over a month after celebrating his 100th birthday. Ryland was one of the first Black male tennis players to compete in the NCAA Championships and the first to play professionally. He coached and taught tennis for over 60 years, advising some of the world's top-ranked professionals, including Venus and Serena Williams, Harold Solomon, Renee Blount and Leslie Allen. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that, at 99, Ryland was New York City's oldest tennis permit holder. In 2019, he was still teaching the sport to kids around the city.
Ryland was also a USTA Eastern section stalwart. He taught the sport at Midtown Tennis Club in Manhattan for nearly 40 years, from 1963 to 1990. For his innumerable accomplishments and contributions to the game, he was inducted into the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame in 2002. Below, we have re-published the feature written by Nancy Gill McShea in honor of his induction. As fellow USTA Eastern Hall of Famer Allen (above, with Ryland) notes in the piece, “Bob’s name would have been right up there with the great players of his time — Hoad, Gonzalez, Budge, Bobby Riggs and the rest — had he not been born a Black man in America. Still, he endured and succeeded in a sport that was not inviting. We can appreciate his accomplishments and, for generations to come, learn from his experiences.”
To learn more about Ryland's life and career in his own words, you can watch this Today Show segment or read his personal reflections on former USTA Eastern junior Noah Rubin's site Behind the Racquet. You can also purchase his memoir here.
Robert Ryland (2002)
By Nancy Gill McShea
Bob Ryland shows only a few signs of slowing down, even though he will turn 82 this June. He is a survivor and an optimist. He still teaches tennis to children a couple of times a week with his friends Arvelia Myers and Leslie Allen, he laughs easily and often, and speaks cheerfully when reminiscing about his unique, 70-year tour of the world’s tennis courts.
Ryland was the first African-American man to play professional tennis. The promoter Jack March recruited him in the 1950s, when tennis was still an amateur sport, to join the World Pro Tour and compete with Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzalez and Don Budge. It would be another decade before the onset of the Open era in 1968, with amateurs and pros competing in the same events. Ryland was also the first African-American to compete in the NCAA Championships, the first to lead his team to the small college national championships as a player-coach and the first to play at the prestigious Los Angeles Tennis Club.
Ryland has coached some of the world’s top-ranked professionals, among them Harold Solomon, Renee Blount and Leslie Allen. In the early 1960s, he taught tennis to government VIPs Robert MacNamara and members of the Kennedy family in Washington, D.C. Later, he taught celebrities Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Mike Wallace and Eartha Kitt at the Midtown Tennis Club in Manhattan, where he worked from 1963 to 1990.
“Bob’s name would have been right up there with the great players of his time — Hoad, Gonzalez, Budge, Bobby Riggs and the rest — had he not been born a black man in America,” Allen has said. “Still, he endured and succeeded in a sport that was not inviting. We can appreciate his accomplishments and, for generations to come, learn from his experiences.”
Born in 1920, the son of an African-American mother and an Irish-Indian father, Ryland learned early to cope silently with restraints imposed on him by racial prejudice. He still vividly recalls the indignities he suffered during his cross-country travels. He was hauled into police stations and ordered to fork over hundreds of dollars — just because he was driving a Cadillac — and forced to sneak in and out of back doors to compete in college tennis matches. He emphasizes, however, that those experiences paled compared to the shock of regularly seeing people of color strung up on trees during his early childhood in Mobile, Alabama. When you witness that kind of horror or feel the jolt of a policeman pulling you into harm’s way for no reason, he said, living with fear becomes a way of life. “You’re scared to death, but you have no choice, you just go through it.”
After his mother, Gussie, and twin brother, Joe, died of pneumonia in 1920 when he was a baby, his father, Robert, sent him from his Chicago home to live with his grandmother in Mobile. While there, he helped pick cotton for the family with his great grandfather, who had been a slave.
He returned to his Chicago roots at age ten and began playing tennis with his father in the public parks. From the early 1930s until the mid-1950s, he was twice the ATA national singles champ and three times the runner-up, during which time he also embarked on a 15-year journey in search of a college degree.
In 1939, he was a student at Tilden Tech High School, won both the Illinois State and junior ATA singles titles and earned a tennis scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans. “The nuns bought us a station wagon and the five of us [teammates] would travel all over the country playing,” he has said.
Ryland left school for a stint in the U.S. Army, from 1941 to 1945, and still managed to play tournaments and exhibitions with players the caliber of Alice Marble, Mary Hardwicke and Dr. Reggie Weir at the Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem. In 1946 he took to the road again, won public parks events in New Jersey and New York and was awarded another tennis scholarship, this time to Wayne University in Detroit. He broke the color barrier that year at the NCAA Championships, advancing to the singles semifinals before losing to USC’s Bob Faulkenburg (a future Wimbledon singles champ). Ryland was later inducted into the university’s hall of fame.
In 1947, he again abandoned academics and headed for California. He worked nights in the post office and played tennis with Gonzalez during the day. He broke the color barrier at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, losing there in the Pacific Southwest Championships, 6-4, 7-5, to Ham Richardson, the country’s No. 1 player at the time. (It would be five years before another Black man, Arthur Ashe, was permitted to play there.)
In 1954, Tennessee AA&I in Nashville offered Ryland a scholarship to be the player-coach, and he twice led his team to the small college national championships, with help from his New York recruits Vernon Morgan and Billy Davis. (When asked if he could beat Davis, Bob laughed and said: “Billy is a good player but he never beat me. He claims he beat me for ice cream but I don’t remember that.”) He left Tennessee with his bachelor’s degree, came to New York and qualified for the 1955 U.S. Championships at Forest Hills.
Ryland worked as the physical education director of the YMCA in Montclair, N.J., but by 1957 he opted to teach tennis and joined the U.S. Professional (Lawn) Tennis Association. In the 1980s, Allen asked him to tour Europe with her while she was playing the women’s pro circuit. “Bob built the foundation for my game, he was always a constant, a guiding force in my life,” she has said. “He took me from a teenager dreaming about the pros right to center court at Wimbledon.”
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