Meet Steven Ryuse, Author of the Book "I Didn't Know I Was Black: Growing up Black in the White World of Tennis"
An independent contractor who often works at Olympic Indoor Tennis Club in Columbus, Ohio and occasionally the Park of Roses, Steven Ryuse has been teaching tennis around Ohio Valley for decades; serving others, while predominantly working for himself. Not only as a tennis professional but also as a published author.
More than 10 years ago, Steven wrote his memoir, I Didn’t Know I Was Black: Growing Up Black in the White World of Tennis. The book studies racism with thoughtful insights into the sport and what it takes to succeed at the game.
“Everybody loved the book,” Steven shares. “I wrote it because I wanted to leave something behind. I haven’t been married and I haven’t any kids.”
Older than 60 now, he’s been trying to cut down his hours for teaching and focus more on his health and well-being.
Just before preparing a lesson, Steven explains what it’s been like instructing during Covid. “I wear a mask. Four of our pros got [Covid] and kids were bringing it in. So I’m masked up!”
Steven Ryuse grew up in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch newspaper described it as a “rural city,” in Knox County, Ohio about 40 miles northeast of Columbus. That's where Steven started playing tennis with his family.
“I wasn’t that good. I was a little bit heavy set. So my dad and my brother were kind of hard on me.”
The young athlete never took any lessons, except with his father.
“It was hard because my brother was always better for a while… Then I got a little older and started doing some push ups,” Steven laughs.
Steven says he remembers exercising and seeing the game get easier for him, but growing up still had some challenges.
In adulthood, Steven was diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a chronic condition that includes attention difficulty and sometimes impulsiveness, often beginning in childhood.
“Back in my day you were just called a silly kid in the class,” Steven says. “I’m surprised I went on to graduate college at Ohio State because it was really hard for me to concentrate. My dad always thought I was just screwing around and stuff. It wasn’t that. It was just hard for me to focus on a subject.”
Steven also experienced racism growing up in Mount Vernon. "I heard the N-word many times— I wasn’t a fan of that. One time, I was cornered by about five guys— I wanted to go [somewhere] where everyone else was going— and I got hit a couple of times. So I began to take martial arts," Steven recalls.
He took every martial arts class he could find, and still attends classes to this day. He also started reading Bruce Lee’s books.
“I had to learn how to take care of myself,” Steven says. “I still run into certain [circumstances] that make me feel uncomfortable, like the other day being followed by a cop." Steven shares that he believes most officers are good people. He even likes meeting with them and chatting. “I tell the officers, I appreciate them.”
Looking back at his childhood, Steven remembers just how much his dad sacrificed to give him and his brother opportunities to play tennis. “He was working a second shift so he could have the weekends off to take us up [to] the tournaments… He worked for an air force base and was an incredible mathematician.”
Steven shares the story of how his Dad first started playing tennis.
“When he came down to Mount Vernon, there was a place where Blacks could go and skate. This is when they weren’t allowed to skate openly. So he would come down and skate with my mom and my mom helped him learn how to play tennis!”
So Steven’s dad passed what he learned down to his sons.
“He taught us what he knew. I mean, he wasn’t a tennis pro or anything, but he taught us!”
Steven says, the boys picked up the rest of their skills through athleticism and joining school teams.
“I played [high school tennis] for four years. We actually had a pretty good team at one time because my brother was number one. At that time, I could have played number one, but I wouldn’t because I was trying to let my brother shine so he could get a scholarship.”
Steven’s dad asked Steven not to challenge his brother. "I never did,” Steven says.
Through repetition and hard work, Steven got better. At one of his high school matches, Steven defeated an Upper Arlington High School student. The student from Upper Arlington was a ranked player in Ohio. When Steven beat him, Columbus-area teams began refusing to play against Ryuse and his brother, Ryuse says. “The influential parents would not let us play in Ohio Valley.” It meant Steven and his brother would have to travel all the way to Cleveland to compete.
“But we got better,” Steven says. That’s why his dad had to work a second shift, so he could take his kids nearly two hours away every weekend to compete in tournaments.
Steven’s success at tournaments earned him a state ranking before going off to college.
“Best days of my life,” Steven remembers fondly, as he begins to explain his tennis experiences at The Ohio State University (OSU). He received offers to play at other universities, but wanted to go to OSU mainly because of its size!
“If you were going to win something at Ohio State, you were going to be known for it,” Steven says.
He never ended up playing one or two, and Steven was a walk-on, never actually receiving a scholarship to play. But he does credit one coach for helping him make the team, John Daley—who Steven says has been a father figure to him in the years since his father passed.
“I used to sell tennis balls from practice so I would have money, [but] after I won the Big Ten, I had all the money I wanted… We had a pretty gosh darn good team. I won the Big Ten my junior year in 1977. We had so many people on the team who were good.” Steven remembers having teammates from all around the world. From Puerto Rico to Upper Arlington, that fateful city that dramatically changed Steven’s high school playing experience. Francisco Gonzalez was also on Steven’s team. Gonzalez later went on to coach to now pro Sloane Stephens.
“Winning the Big Ten Championship… It was like heaven on Earth,” Steven says. “I always pray that everyone experiences that feeling. It was just happiness beyond happy because I did something I planned to do.”
When Steven played at OSU, he got the nickname California from people around campus. “They had never seen a Black person with tennis racquets. So they thought I came from California because a lot of new things came from California. I didn’t take it as an insult. They also called me Blue because they thought my eyes were blue. My eyes are green… They just could not believe a Black guy with tennis racquets was going to practice. They’d never seen it, especially the football players,” Steven says.
A lot of things happened after Steven won the Big Ten Championship. “I actually played Bill Cosby in 1977. I’m not bragging about that,” Steven shares. Bill Cosby, the former actor and stand-up comedian who once starred on The Bill Cosby Show was in recent years convicted of assault; with several women having spoken out against him, stating he sexually assaulted them.
“He was somewhat arrogant,” Steven remembers about Cosby. “He wasn’t the funny sort of guy you saw on the Huxtables. I was [playing] trying to get sponsored to get on the tour… It really made me mad when Cosby brought race into it,” Steven says, addressing some statements made by Cosby’s legal team. “There’s no reason to bring race up,” Steven says. “He hurt women… It’s just totally wrong.”
After college, Steven got USPTA (United States Professional Tennis Association) certified so he could start teaching tennis. Steven says he wanted to distinguish himself as an instructor, often having felt a need to prove himself.
“I sometimes did not like being who I am. I don’t like to say that. It’s like me saying I don’t like myself… But I am happy with who I am now. Certain things, I just wish could have been different,” Steven explains.
That desire to succeed is mentioned throughout Steven’s book. After I Didn’t Know I Was Black: Growing Up Black in the White World of Tennis came out, New Albany schools invited Steven to speak at an assembly they were having to celebrate Black History Month.
Steven says the idea of speaking to school kids was, “very nerve-racking,” but he enjoyed himself tremendously and appreciated the conversations he had with students. Talking about books and sharing life experiences is something Steven loves to do. It’s part of the reason he loved OSU. “It introduced me to so many different people from many cultures.”
Now, Steven spends about 45 hours a week, training players in tennis clubs and helping them reach to achieve their goals. It’s something he loves doing, but Steven admits he wants to take some extra time for himself and focus on his health.
“I had prostate cancer not too long ago in 2018, and my numbers were up when I had a check-up. My goal is to find out everything’s okay so I can feel good about that,” Steven shares.
He says it’s been hard to schedule follow-up appointments during the pandemic, but despite Covid-19 challenges, Steven feels hopeful; not only about his personal health but about tennis and the sports’ future. Steven reflects, appreciating the two times he got to see Arthur Ashe play in person.
“[Arthur Ashe] was such an ambassador. He helped us… I want to thank Arthur and Venus and Serena Williams for helping a lot of young minorities. I like the trail they’ve made for us.”
To read Steven’s book, I Didn’t Know I Was Black: Growing Up Black in the White World of Tennis, click here.