At 95, American Tennis Association still serving its core audience | 2/29/2012, 11 p.m.

by Charles Moseley
NNPA News Service

African Americans in tennis is a story that needs to be told, and telling that story has been the mission of the American Tennis Association (ATA) since its inception in the early twentieth century.

When the USLTA issued a policy statement formally barring African-American tennis players from its competitions, the Association Tennis Club of Washington, D.C., and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Md., conceived the idea of the American Tennis Association. The ATA was formally organized on Nov. 30, 1916, at the YMCA of Washington, DC. In August 1917, the ATA held the first National Championship Tournament at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore.

 Segregation prevailed in the world of tennis until the late 1940’s when young rising tennis star Althea Gibson exploded on the scene. (Photo courtesy of NNPA/ATA)

 President Ronald Reagan greets Arthur Ashe in 1982. (White House Photographic Office photo)

The primary mission of the ATA was the formation of a circuit of black clubs and tournaments across the country. The new organization permitted the black elite to travel from city to city, network amongst their peers and enjoy the game of tennis. These separate but unequal tennis societies continued without conflict for nearly 25 years. Blacks enjoyed the social aspects, as well as the networking opportunities provided by the ATA.

By the mid-1930’s there were more than 100 ATA member-clubs, many of them private, black-owned tennis and golf country clubs. This idyllic serenity was about to undergo a change as players began to improve and the desire to compete at the highest levels of the sport took on greater importance. The very first confrontation came in 1929 when Reginald Weir and Gerald Norman were denied entry into the National Indoors in New York City. Both paid their entry fees, but upon presenting themselves to play in the event, were denied the opportunity to participate. Formal complaints were filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Segregation prevailed in the world of tennis until the late 1940’s when young rising tennis star Althea Gibson exploded on the scene. Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, Dr. Hubert Eaton and Bertram Baker were among the ATA officials who were key forces behind negotiations that in 1950 led to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s acceptance of Gibson’s application to become the first black to ever compete in the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills. The self-described country girl from North Carolina spoke about her life from a historical perspective.

“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, N.C.,” she said.

In subsequent years, Baker, ATA executive secretary from 1936 to1966, hammered out an arrangement that enabled ATA champions to obtain a wild card entry into the prestigious event.

Dr. Walter Johnson was credited with founding the first formalized ATA Junior Development program designed to train talented young African-American players at his home in Lynchburg, Va. Each summer, a group of the most talented minority youth from across the country would gather at his home to train and play tournaments. One of those outstanding players was Arthur Ashe. Johnson immediately recognized Ashe as the next equivalent to Althea Gibson. Ashe’s quiet and cool demeanor allowed him to stay focused on the game and not be distracted by insults, bad calls, cheating and verbal abuse.

Ashe’s success as a Davis Cup player and his U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles are legendary. But, his recognition at tennis became the tool that he would use to challenge society to end the racial injustice that plagued the planet.

The year before he died of complications associated with AIDS at the age of 49 in 1993, Ashe gave an interview to People magazine about how he was coping with the disease.

“Mr. Ashe, I guess this must be the heaviest burden you have ever had to bear, isn’t it?” the reporter asked.

“You’re not going to believe this,” responded the UCLA alumnus who grew up in the segregated town of Richmond, Va. and went to Ivy League schools. “But being black is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear.”

Richard Williams, the father of the Williams sisters, has been one of the sports loudest advocates when it comes to pointing out the inequities which exist regarding access by aspiring African American tennis players.

“You can only be good if you have a system behind you and not ahead of you, blocking you from getting there,” he said. “Institutions that could help blacks refuse. I think they drive blacks away from tennis.”

“If you can’t establish your own, this system has shown you that it is not going to accept you in their house,” he said. “If I had Black people who wanted to work with me and we independently could set up something, we could create Black tennis players. Other than that, it’ll never happen.”

Since the time of Dr. Johnson’s Junior Program, ATA Clubs across the country began their own Junior Development programs training young African American students and preparing them for success on the collegiate and or professional levels.

Most African-American professional tennis players were trained by ATA Clubs and played ATA Tournaments before turning pro. While the Williams’ sisters were not a product of the American Tennis Association, they have been supportive of the organization, making appearances and encouraging young players to pursue their tennis goals.

The ATA will host its 95th National Championships in Fort Lauderdale July 29-Aug. 4. More than 3000 tennis players and their families are expected to participate. Players from 8-80 will be on hand to compete for their place in the history of the American Tennis Association.

(To learn more about the American Tennis Association, visit www.americantennis­ or Facebook – American Tennis Association, Inc.)