The changing face of tennis: more diversity with more role models
The term “role model” has been around for a long time. We hear or use it almost daily. We have it as a permanent part of our lexicon.
It begs the question: How do we become what we want to be? How are we influenced by the people we see or hear about what they do. While there is great merit in hearing about it, it can be suggested that seeing someone doing it is a stronger influencer.
Each of us took a different route to the game of tennis. The common denominator is that we love the game. It has allowed us to make new friends and to renew old friendships. Tennis wasn’t popular in the neighborhood where I grew up as most boys were playing basketball and football. Some of us began playing tennis because it was a different sport and required a different type of athleticism and thinking.
Arthur Ashe, who I would later meet, was the only role model that I had as an African American male tennis player. During those early years, I was able to meet one of his tennis supporters, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson from Lynchburg, Va. Johnson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Opportunities were limited for African Americans playing tennis back in the day. Resources, instruction and the social climate of the day were all factors in our not gaining access to the game of tennis.
That was yesteryear and opportunities for African Americans have increased greatly. Coaching and sponsorships have increased dramatically, and the results have been outstanding. We know there have been tennis champions of color in our recent history and there will be more.
It was with pride and joy to watch Coco Gauff win the women’s singles title at this year’s Western & Southern Open. What was also joyous was two African American women with Atlanta roots — Taylor Townsend and Alycia Parks — won the women’s doubles title as well. This comes shortly after Clervie Ngounoue, a young African American girl from Washington D.C., winning the Wimbledon girls’ singles title. By winning the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championship, Ngounoue earned a wild card into the main draw of the 2023 US Open.
Opportunities only come through exposure. The tennis landscape is changing and becoming more inclusive. Most of us have been around tennis for a long time and to see how the sport has evolved is gratifying.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are working within the USTA community. The programs and initiatives are more intentional and will become more sustainable. Partnerships and alliances with organizations like the ATA and Historically Black Colleges and Universities will pay dividends in years to come. Additional partnerships with city recreation centers and public parks have the potential of identifying players who can gain access to training and resources.
Increasing the diverse pool of talent is a goal for all of us interested in diversity, equity and inclusion. Community tennis organizations and National Junior Tennis Leagues can serve as vehicles for this realistic and attainable goal.
As important is the opportunity to increase the number of diverse volunteers within our sport. As our memberships in state associations continue to grow, we must recruit, train and retain tennis ambassadors and officials. Umpires and linespersons will be needed.
Having different voices at the leadership table will enhance the collective voice of the USTA. DE&I efforts by USTA Southern continue to be recognized nationally and emulated by other sections.
Our signature event, the US Open, will begin on Monday. The diversity of players, coaches and volunteers will be exciting to see. We have come a long way and the future is bright.
Tennis for life is more than just an expression as it takes us on a journey filled with hope and opportunity.
James B. Ewers, Jr., Ed.D. is member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame.