Celebrating Black Tennis Players, Past and Present
In honor of Black History Month, we will be highlighting some of the great black tennis players from the past and present. Each week we will feature a different player with a brief write up on their impact on the sport. This week's highlight is Bob Ryland.
Arthur Ashe was a true American hero and will always be remembered for his accolades both on and off the court. But how did Arthur Ashe get the opportunity to display his talents on an international stage? His childhood hero, Bob Ryland. Bob Ryland broke the color barrier in 1959 by becoming the first black man to play professional tennis.
At 14 years old, Arthur Ashe was quoted saying, “I only want to be good enough to be able to beat Bob Ryland.”
In addition to being the first black professional tennis player, Ryland was the first black player to compete in the NCAA National Championships, the first black player/coach to lead a college team twice to the small college national championships and the first black tennis player to play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He was inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.
Ryland has worked with the likes of Ashe and the Williams Sisters as well as a number of celebrities teaching them tennis.
Learn more about Bob Ryland’s influential story here:
James Blake, of Fairfield, CT, is a three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist and former No. 4 ranked player in the world. He retired from professional tennis in 2013, and in 2015 he joined the USTA Foundation as the Chairman of the Board.
“When I heard about the position and how the USTA Foundation combines tennis and education, I wanted to be involved because that’s extremely important to me,” Blake said in a 2015 interview with USTA.com. “Tennis and education have been huge parts of my life, so trying to give it a little more notoriety and hopefully raise some funds for a positive influence was a no-brainer.”
Read more of the 2015 USTA.com interview below:
Did you expect that you would remain in tennis when you retired? Or did that come as a surprise?
When I retired, I knew I wanted to take six months to a year off. I always thought that meant it would be playing golf and relaxing, but life got in the way and it meant changing diapers and spending time with my family, which was much more rewarding. Once I had that time off and this opportunity presented itself, I realized that I missed many parts of the game. I wasn’t watching or playing as much tennis, so getting back into it made me realize how much I loved the sport and will continue to love it for the rest of my life. It would be foolish to deny that, so this position is a way to stay involved and hopefully do it in a very positive way.
Now that you’re experiencing life as a parent, what do you think some of the benefits of tennis are for kids?
Tennis is a lifetime sport. My mom is 80 years old and still plays once or twice a week. My daughter is 2-and-a-half years old and she’s already got a racquet. It gives them a reason to get outside and be active, which is so important to me. We’re fighting what seems to be an epidemic with childhood obesity, so I know that I’ll be sure to stress tennis or some other sport with my kids.
What memories do you have of being in the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program?
The main thing is the volunteers. My dad was one of them, which was one of the reasons I first ended up there, as well as other volunteers Dante Brown and (current USTA President) Katrina Adams. It was just a feeling of camaraderie because everyone was genuinely happy to be out on the court and doing something they loved. That’s a feeling which can’t be duplicated. And on top of that, you had great tennis. Every Sunday we were either playing as a family or down at the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, so there’s a lot of great memories.
More top juniors have been pursuing college tennis instead of turning pro right after high school. What are your thoughts on this?
Growing up, I didn’t realize that I’d be able to get as far as I did in the tennis world, so my goal for a while was just to play on a college team. One thing my coach told me early on was that a lot of players are going to burn out, so the most important thing for kids is to be happy with how they play and how far it might take them. Whether their talent gets them to No. 5 on their high school team or the final of the US Open, be proud of it and enjoy the ride. We can all enjoy tennis no matter what our level is, so I love that the goal for some can be getting a college education. That can even be more valuable than winning the US Open because you can use your mind for the rest of your life.
Read more about James Blake and his work with the USTA Foundation:
Ora Mae Washington: Dubbed as the “Queen of Tennis" During the 1930s
Ora Mae Washington was born on January 23, 1898 and was an American athlete from the Germantown section of Northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Washington was known as the “Queen of Tennis.” Washington played professional tennis and won the American Tennis Association’s national singles title eight time in nine years between 1929 and 1937. She also won 12 straight double championships.
There was one opponent Washington longed to play in Tennis. While Washington dominated the #Black women’s tennis scene, Helen Moody was the reigning championship among white women who played on courts such as Wimbledon and Forrest Hills. Moody refused to accept a match with Washington. Washington’s skills did not go unnoticed by the Roosevelt administration. Hundreds of public tennis courts where the game was unfamiliar were built as part of Depression-era work and recovery programs. Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, the first Black man and woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open would learn to play on those courts.
Tennis was not the only sport that Washington was good in playing. She first played basketball in 1930 with the Germantown Hornets. She had a 22-1 national female title. The Hornets team was sponsored by a local YMCA, but they separated from them and became a professional team. The team often played against Black women, white women, and occasionally #African American men teams.
Soon after Washington decided to retire from sports in the mid-1940s. She supported herself as a housekeeper, and later died in 1971. Washington was inducted into Temple University’s Sports Hall of Fame in the mid-1980s. She was also elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Knoxville, Tennessee.
- Info courtesy of www.blackthen.com
Read more on Ora Washington: