Black men make up 74 per cent of players in the Nation Basketball Association and 69 per cent of players in the National Football League. Yet, they only make up 7% in Major League Baseball and less than 2% of the players in the National Hockey League. This disparity is also clear in the sport of tennis but why? Why are there such few black tennis players
The modern game of tennis traces back to a medieval game called jeu de paume, which began in 12th century France. Widely adopted by the nobility and aristocracy of the time, it slowly spread to the rest of Europe. Its popularity rose and waned throughout the proceeding centuries, but in 1877 a major milestone happened. In an effort to raise money, the England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club hosted the first Wimbledon championship. What started as a gathering of about 200 people is today a globally renowned event, attracting millions of viewers and billions in annual revenue.
Today, tennis is played in the Olympics and is considered one of the five most popular sports worldwide. Yet, when compared to sports like soccer (or football), on global and national levels the diversity is lacking.
Tennis is dominated by white athletes. This is especially true in the United States.
So why aren’t there more Black tennis players? The reason is likely twofold.
Black people are not as exposed to tennis
Exposure is a key ingredient for the success of any sport. Sports like football, basketball, baseball, and soccer have a massive amount of exposure and penetration. This means many people know about them.
The sports are played in high schools, the equipment is sold in your nearest convenience store. Entire media networks are dedicated to coverage and their athletes are revered across generations.
The availability of these sports provides pathways and opportunities. Children dreaming of being the next Lebron James can go to a nearby basketball court. They can practice their skills and join a team early. If they hone their skills, they can make it on the high school team and if they dominate there, maybe they get a free ride to college. These pathways are available in some sports, but harder to find in others.
The child looking to play soccer can find a ball and a field, but where does he go to play tennis… who does she play with? Without exposure, not enough black young people pick up a tennis racquet.
Black Tennis History
Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka…
These athletes are well known in popular culture, names renowned for their competitiveness, their champions mindset, and distinctive style. But have you heard of Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe?
The history of African-American tennis leagues dates back nearly a century. Unfortunately, the media often paints our new black stars as trailblazers, without mentioning those whose shoulders they stand on.
In 1956 Gibson became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title. In 1968, Ashe became the first Black man to win the US Open. These accomplishments are over 50 years old!
While Black tennis stars have always had to contend with discrimination and racism in a predominantly white sport, the history of Black tennis is robust.
Without knowing that history, however, few people grow up with tennis stars as heroes. Many Black children growing up thinking tennis is not for them because they don’t see themselves represented.
With more exposure and teaching of the history of the sport, tennis can regain the popularity it once had globally.