Celebrating Champions of Color

Katrina Adams  |  February 1, 2018

Tennis has been fortunate, as a sport, in that so many of our greatest champions have been champions in every regard; players who have used their platform of popularity to make a difference in society. For many, that’s been a choice; a choice worthy of applause. For others, particularly for those pioneering players of color who were required to give an extra measure of effort, dedication and courage just to elbow their way onto that platform, it was more of a duty. Those who first challenged the “whites-only” world of tennis knew that they were paving a path for others of their race to follow. They knew very well that they held the key that might allow future generations of African-American players to unlock the doors of opportunity that had been so hard for them to open.


Some of the names are familiar, such as five-time Grand Slam singles champ Althea Gibson, the first African-American to compete in the U.S. ADVERTISEMENT National Championships, and Arthur Ashe, who won the men’s title at the inaugural US Open in 1968 as part of his three career Slam crowns. Some are less familiar, including pioneering players like Bob Ryland, who broke the color barrier in men’s professional tennis in 1959; Ora Washington, the eight-time American Tennis Association women’s champion; Jimmie McDaniel, who won 38 ATA championships between 1939 and 1941; and legendary coach Dr. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson—a fine player in his own right—who coached both Gibson and Ashe, among many others.


These players—and so many others—carried more than a racquet with them every time they stepped on a court. Each was in love with a sport that most often did not love them back, and because of that, each was bridled by the heavy weight of responsibility—not only to themselves but to others like them. It is difficult to imagine the level of challenges they faced; each not only had to find a way to win, they also had to find a way to rise above a game—and a society—that seldom saw beyond the color of their skin.

Fortunately, each also fully understood the importance of rising above it all—both for the good of the game and for the greater good of the society. And rise they did. They stared down ignorance and pushed through racism to lift their respective profiles as players and coaches and become roles models and icons for others like them who had the audacity to dream. What’s more, each did so with great grace and a singular dignity, blazing indelible trails along the road less traveled; illuminating that uneven highway so that the journey along it might be easier for those who followed.

Those of us who did—myself included—will forever be in debt to those who came before, as each helped to smooth the road with a bulldozer of courage and a grader of grace. None of us is naive enough to think that there are not still many potholes in that road, but it is a better road, and it has led us all to a better place.

From that time to this time, African-American players have made a significant impact on our sport—at every level. And our sport is better for it.  James Blake, Mal Washington, Zina Garrison, Rodney Harmon, Camille Benjamin, Donald Young, Taylor Townsend, Chanda Rubin, Lori McNeil, Chip Hooper, Leslie Allen and Bryan Shelton are just some of the names who have helped to raise our game with their own games. Sloane Stephens is the defending US Open champion, winning the 2017 women’s title over another woman of color, Madison Keys. Throughout the course of the last two decades, Venus and Serena Williams have changed the face of the sport, both literally and figuratively, pumping up the level of interest and excitement in tennis with their incredible athleticism and unyielding desire to be better than the rest. Serena’s 23 Grand Slam singles titles is a record for any player—male or female—in the Open era. And she’s not done yet.

And like those champions who came before them, both Venus and Serena carry on the tradition of using their platforms of popularity to make their voices heard on important issues—both inside and outside the lines of the tennis court. That aspect of being a champion is no less important today than it was in the past. Both of these women not only accept, but embrace, that responsibility.

Today, we are seeing more talented black players than at any time before in the history of the sport, and as we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, will be connecting the past to the future, taking a look at some of the most promising young African-American talents who figure to be factors in the sport in the coming years. Each of them shows promise and potential; each appears to have the talent and the toughness necessary to carry forward the legacy of the brilliant legion of black players who came before them.

The road—and its challenges—continue. There are big shoes to fill.

USTA Chairman of the Board and President Katrina Adams is the first African-American to hold that role in the 137-year history of the association. A former professional player, Adams ranked as high as No. 67 in singles and No. 8 in doubles, winning 20 career doubles titles and reaching the quarterfinals or better at all four Grand Slam events.



Photo: (l to r) Madison Keys, Katrina Adams and Sloane Stephens at the trophy presentation following the 2017 US Open women's final. (Photo credit: Getty Images)


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