of Tennis Clubs: A Proud History
Mark Winters | February 20, 2017
Tennis aficionados are well aware of the proud history of the American Tennis Association. The ATA was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1916, supported by the Association Tennis Club of Washington and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, to provide “people of color an opportunity to develop an appreciation for the gentlemen’s game.”
Less heralded, but no less important, was the often overlooked Western Federation of Tennis Clubs (TWFTC).
TWFTC was founded the same year as the ATA, but back then, as they say, “east was east and west was west,” with the center of attention focused in the east. The difference between the two regions involved more than distance. The first meeting of TWFTC took place at the downtown YMCA.
In time, the TWFTC became the Pacific Coast Championship, Inc., and is now made up of clubs from San Diego north to Sacramento. ADVERTISEMENT
Jimmy Nobles was one of the founders. His son, Fred, remembered the time period well.
“There were five or six black clubs in California,” he said. “The idea was that the clubs would play what became the Pacific Coast Championships (PCC) that is held Labor Day weekend. The winners earned automatic entry into the ATA championships.”
The inaugural ATA National Championships were held in August 1917 at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Men’s and women’s singles and men’s doubles were contested. The prevailing attitude of separation made it necessary for the tournament to take place at sites such as Central State, Hampton (which had been Hampton Institute) and Lincoln universities, as well as Morehouse College.
The African-American schools opened their arms, providing tennis courts and living accommodations. More important, the annual gathering became a social activity that was the highlight of the tournament season.
Jimmie McDaniel, a Los Angeles native, was the ATA singles winner from 1939 to 1941. The year following his first ATA championship victory, he became the Jackie Robinson of tennis. McDaniel broke the color barrier when he played Don Budge, who won the first singles Grand Slam in 1938, claiming all four majors in a single season. On July 29, 1940, before 2,000 spectators, the exhibition match took place at the ATA affiliated Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem.
Budge, who turned pro after his Grand Slam, defeated the former Xavier University of Louisiana star, then paired with Reginald Weir against McDaniel and Richard Cohen in doubles. In 1948, Weir again made history, competing at the U.S. Indoor Lawn Tennis Championship in New York.
When Beverly Coleman (pictured) was a Los Angeles teenager, she was touted as the “next Althea (Gibson).” She has fond memories of traveling east for the ATA Championships – memories that illuminate the feeling of camaraderie that developed between the ATA and TWFTC.
“One year, I went in Eleese Thornton’s car,” she recalled. “Earthna Jacquet came with us, and so did Willis Fennell, who was about 12. I was 15 and reached the girls’ final. Jacquet helped with the heavy driving and took care of ‘all his girls’ when we traveled.
“When I was learning tennis, he would hit with me. He also took me to my lessons with his coach, Bob Harmon. He always helped youngsters, buying them lunch, having their racquets strung, giving us rides home if we needed them.”
In 1926, Carter Woodson, a historian who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, came up with the idea of making the second week of February, “Negro History Week.” The concept was noteworthy because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had February birthdays – Lincoln’s on the 12th and Douglass’ on the 14th. The goal of the celebration was to provide cultural insight and broaden understanding of African-American culture.
The second week in February was so recognized until 1969, when the Black United Students at Kent State University proposed that February become “Black History Month.” The first observation was celebrated at the university a year later, and by 1976, it was part of the country’s Bicentennial Celebration and officially received a U.S. government designation.
This year, the American Tennis Association and The Western Federation of Tennis Clubs each celebrate their 101st birthdays. It promises to be an exciting time for African-American tennis in the U.S. – with a bond of history that spans both coasts.