Getting to Know: Roxanne Aaron, president of the American Tennis Association
She first picked up a tennis racquet as a college student in physical education class, but now, Roxanne Aaron is an influential voice in the sport as the president of the American Tennis Association (ATA).
The ATA is the oldest African-American sports organization in the United States, and its modern mission is to advance participation, representation and overall interest in tennis for people of color. It was founded more than a century ago, in 1916, by a group of African-American businessmen, college professors and physicians in response to Black players being forbidden to compete in organized tennis tournaments with white players.
Currently in the middle of her second term as ATA president, Aaron, 69, is a native of Newport News, Va., and a graduate of Bennett College, an HBCU in Greenboro, N.C. She also attended the University of Connecticut. In her role, she actively serves the ATA's mission in a variety of ways and works tirelessly to make tennis more diverse and inclusive. As president, she presides over all ATA operations, including the association's century-old national championship.
In this Q&A, Aaron recounts how she got involved in the sport, what inspired her to eventually take a leadership role in it, how the ATA has advanced and evolved in her years within the organization, her position as a woman of color in tennis, and more.
Q: How did you get involved in tennis?
Roxanne Aaron: When I went to college, they wanted us to be well-rounded. I learned how to play basketball, learned field hockey, had to learn to swim to pass a class, and I learned to play tennis. The reason why I kept my tennis recreational was because I'm not a good tennis player. I love tennis, but I'm not that good! I would rather play doubles, so I get some help. That's how I am, but I love what I love. I love a good tennis match. I have three adult children now, and two of my sons play tennis. When I had my oldest son, I looked at him and said, 'You know what? You might be a tennis player,' so I got him involved with tennis. Every weekend from when he was 11 years old, we would go to USTA tournaments and we'd go to ATA tournaments. He ended up getting a tennis scholarship to college.
Q: How did you make the transition from a recreational tennis player and parent to the administrative side of the sport?
Roxanne Aaron: I was a business major. I started off going to school to be a teacher and decided that was not for me; I also started off school to be a social worker, but I realized that wasn't for me, too. So I decided to go into business. When I was on the board of the Red Cross in Connecticut, I met another board member who was a tennis coach. I got my son taking lessons at his club, and he was the one who helped sign him up for USTA and ATA tournaments. He got me involved with the New England Tennis Association, which is one of the sections of the ATA. [Editor's note: In addition to individual member clubs, the ATA is currently made up of nine sectional associations that represent the various areas of the U.S. In order to form a sectional association, a region must have five or more ATA member clubs.]
After I joined the section, I started working section tournaments. The section used to have a big tournament on the Fourth of July at Yale University, and I was on the tournament committee and got really involved in running the tournament. I was asked to become president of the New England Tennis Association, and was for about six years, and then the ATA came knocking in 2014 and asked me to be treasurer. In 2018, I ran for my first term as president, each of which lasts two years, and I can serve a maximum of three terms.
Q: What prompted you to want to get involved in tennis in this way?
Roxanne Aaron: I looked at the value that tennis offers, especially to junior players, and saw that there was a need. I saw the impact that tennis made on both my sons, from their lifestyle and how they value tennis. I thought that there might be something more that I would like to have, so I could expose more young people to tennis.
In the United States, only 6% of tennis players are Black. That's a small number and I would like to see us increase that number, especially among Black and brown boys. A lot of times, they move to basketball, football and baseball, and I think we need to do a better job of letting them know that there are other options out there, and tennis is one of them. Not everyone is going to be a pro, but we also have to let them know that there are so many doors to go through by being a tennis player.
Q: What role do you think the ATA plays in trying to bring that awareness to young players?
Roxanne Aaron: I think we play an important role. We have a phenomenal national championship every year. Our nationals are so huge that we have over 700 tennis players from all over the United States, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands—and of that number, approximately 360 juniors come from all over the country. They come from every level of play. I think the ATA has been really good at that, bringing these juniors from all over to our nationals and offering clinics, so that if you come and you want to work on your backhand or your serve, we have clinics that can help them do that.
We're community-based, and it's a family. The ATA and our nationals have always been a family affair. People come back, year after year. The adults come to have fun, to play tennis, and then go to the bar, have a couple of drinks and talk. The juniors come for the competition, and we often have coaches from HBCUs come to recruit. We've had that quite often. In fact, last year, a few high school seniors were recruited to play at Howard University because the coach saw them at our national championships.
Q: How has the ATA evolved in your time with the organization?
Roxanne Aaron: I think that in the past, our focus was on our annual national championships. We are transforming into an organization that is more of a vehicle for people to come to, to find out information and use as a resource. Last week, for example, I got a call from a mother that had moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and she was looking for a coach. I referred her to Martin Blackman at the USTA to help her find a coach for her child. We've had calls from parents asking, 'What college do you think is a good one for my son or daughter to go to? He or she's a tennis player. What should we be looking for?' We've branched out as that resource.
We have also branched out to embrace junior development. A lot of African-American players came through our program in history. Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Katrina Adams and Leslie Allen were among those who came through our system as junior players. Coco [Gauff] played our nationals and won as a junior player. Beefing up our junior development program, because we feel that there's really a need for it now, has been so important to us.
Q: You noted that the ATA gave rise to Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and numerous other great champions. How has the organization has built and supported its player base in recent years?
Roxanne Aaron: Firstly, there's something I want to be clear on. The ATA is really a diverse organization, and that's why we're named the American Tennis Association. We don't have a closed door to people. We have a wide range of membership. You don't have to be Black or brown to be part of the ATA.
We didn't have a national tournament in 2020 because of the pandemic, which was the first time in 105 years that we didn't have one. Last year, because we knew that we wanted to get players back on the courts, the USTA Foundation partnered with the ATA and offered $500 per kid at their NJTLs to come and compete at our nationals, and that really was a lot of help for us. In the last year, we've really started looking closely at the players whose parents or guardians might not have the funds to meet their tennis needs. We have a program set up for that. For example, we had a grandmother who was raising her grandson, who needed new sneakers and a racquet to play at a tournament. The ATA supported that grandmother so she could buy him a nice racquet and shoes to go compete. We've had situations where parents want their children to take lessons from a coach but can't afford it. The ATA has helped them with that. We had one mother whose son had the opportunity to move to Florida to expand his tennis knowledge, and we helped with that transition so they could move to Florida.
We do fundraisers, we write grants to foundations ... to support our community. We also have a scholarship fund for seniors who'll play tennis in college that they can apply for.
Q: Where does tennis stand today in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, and do you feel it has made strides in these areas?
Roxanne Aaron: I think the needle has been moved quite a bit, but I think there's a lot of work to do when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. I'm glad you brought up equity, because equity is sometimes dropped from the conversation, and it's very important that there is equality across the board. The USTA is really doing a good job in moving the needle. For example, Tennis Industry United (TIU) that [USTA CEO] Mike Dowse founded—and I thought it was great that he did that—brought all of us [tennis organizations] together, and I'm part of that group.
One of the committees has to do with diversity, equity, inclusion in regards to coaches, and making sure that we address Black and brown coaches, and women coaches, and make sure that they have all the resources and tools that are needed to go out and and be certified to coach. I think that's very good. That's been really a positive that we have addressed. We have to really look at our messaging now and how we pull people into the sport, and I think that's something that we'll continue to work at.
Q: As a woman of color, how important is it to you, personally, for young players to see you in a leadership role? What impact do you feel it has on them?
Roxanne Aaron: I think it's very important for young girls to see me in in a leadership role as the president of the ATA because it lets them know that they can also aspire to be in this position. As I said before, there are so many doors that you go through in tennis. You can go to management, you can go be president of the ATA, you can be a coach. Venus and Serena made it so that more and more girls want to play tennis, and you see that just by the amount of players who've come after them. I would like for them to see the future that can come with being a tennis player and being a woman.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of tennis?
Roxanne Aaron: What is so disturbing to me is that I don't think the media does enough to emphasize tennis ... and I want to figure out how we can get people on board to talk up tennis. We need to do a better job of that in the future to get it more in the mainstream and get more people playing. Tennis is still looked at like it's an elite sport, that you need to have money to play, but it really is a sport for anyone.
One of the things my son has said about tennis is that he can get on a plane, take his racquet anywhere he goes, and then find a tennis court and find someone to play with. That's the good thing about tennis. At our nationals, we have players from their 30s through their 80s who come back every year. It's a lifetime skill and a lifetime sport.