Bob Ryland, first Black pro tennis player, lived a lifetime in the sport

Arthur Kapetanakis | August 05, 2020

Robert “Bob” Ryland, the first Black professional tennis player, passed away on Aug. 2 at the age of 100. A Chicago native, Ryland epitomized tennis as a sport for a lifetime.


“See, that was my baby,” Ryland said in a 2019 Wall Street Journal interview. “I love tennis, I like to watch tennis. Sometimes I try to hit up the wall if I can. I still love it.”


He began playing tennis at age 9, and only stopped playing competitively at 85. In 1959, at age 39, he broke the color barrier in professional tennis when he competed in the World Pro Championships in Cleveland.

In his later years, he continued to spread his love of the game by coaching kids on public courts throughout New York City, where he was the oldest tennis-permit holder in the city he called home.


As a coach, Ryland helped guide Serena and Venus Williams, and worked more extensively with Leslie Allen and Arthur Ashe—who once famously said: “My only dream in tennis was to become good enough to beat Bob Ryland.”


Ryland twice won the men’s singles title at the American Tennis Association National Championships, and was also a national junior champion with the ATA, the oldest African-American sports organization in the U.S.


His barrier-breaking also extended to the collegiate level, where he overcame segregation to become the first Black man to play in the NCAA National Championships, reaching the semifinals in 1946 representing Wayne State University. Later, as a player-coach, he accomplished another first when he twice led Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University) to the small college national championships, before graduating from the HBCU with a Bachelor of Science degree. Ryland’s first college was Xavier University of Louisiana, also an HBCU, which he attended on scholarship before leaving to serve the United States Army from 1941-45, during World War II.


He is a member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame, the USTA Midwest Hall of Fame and the Wayne State University Athletic Hall of Fame.


Ryland and his wife, Nancy, were VIP guests at the 2019 US Open, where they walked the blue carpet (pictured above), enjoyed a meal in the player café alongside the stars of today, and took in a dramatic evening of tennis in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was fitting that Ryland—a great champion of tennis, in many respects— watched both eventual US Open singles champions that night, as Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu victories headlined the Ashe evening slate.


The pioneer will always have a place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where there is a paver in his honor that reads: “Bob Ryland: Coach and Friend.”


When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Ryland said he would like to be known as a man who played tennis well and “opened doors for the kids.”


And open doors he did.


Mrs. Ryland expressed that her husband would be happy with any contributions to junior tennis on his behalf.

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