Opinion: The enduring whiteness of tennis
Concerted change can take place in sport, if concerted efforts are taken to bring it about, and not enough has happened to change the demographic profile of tennis. That’s in sharp contrast to other popular sports.
Those team sports have an advantage, however, when it comes to diversifying that individual sports don’t have. Black players in previously all-White locker rooms became more preeminent at both the professional and the collegiate levels at a time of broader political and societal desegregation.
Once Black players began to participate in consequential numbers in team sports from which they previously had been excluded — they literally “changed the game,” bringing with them a culture-driven, athletic style of play learned in America’s urban centers.
And once that style of play took hold, professional basketball and football coaches, owners and collegiate coaches felt compelled to recruit more Black athletes, particularly in football at certain positions like running back and wide receiver, where African American players enjoyed a culture-driven “advantage” in their athleticism and style of play.
Black players in these sports had what I call “transactional leverage”: their skills were in such high demand that the cost of excluding Black athletes from the locker room was eclipsed by the value of including them on college and professional teams.
But such experiences — no matter how sincere in purpose and how well-funded they might be — are never sufficient to assure broad access and opportunity at the highest levels of competition and achievement. That takes years of financial investment and intensive tutelage from a very young age, the kind of instruction that Tiafoe got on his home tennis court and Williams received from her father. The exposure to the game that the USTA is offering young players isn’t nearly sufficient to attain the same results.
Desegregation of the American locker rooms in the highest profile team sports didn’t happen out of a sense of morality or fairness. It didn’t happen because it was “the right thing to do.”
League officials running mainstream sports — often under political pressure because of broader societal change and by lobbying by the Black press and African American leaders — increasingly deemed it advantageous to allow Black players to routinely showcase their talents in previously “Whites-only” mainstream team sports.
There is, of course, a chicken-or-the-egg aspect to the problem of Blacks in tennis. There would be more Black champions if African Americans had greater access to tennis courts, particularly in urban areas, along with the appropriate training and equipment. And if the tennis world saw that more Black champions could emerge from such settings, perhaps they would do more to invest in bringing more opportunities to young players in those communities.
A laudable sentiment, and maybe he’ll succeed. But everything I’ve learned from decades of studying the Black experience tells me that his breakthrough will not be enough to sweep away decades of institutional culture in a sport that has been historically stubborn to change.