The spring of 2020 will ooze into the history books as one of the most dire and confusing periods in the history of tennis, in general, and the world as a whole for that matter. The COVID-19 pandemic brought pretty much everything everywhere to its knees. Death was chronicled every evening on the news. The economic collapse that was mindlessly driven by dysfunctional government decision-making gave birth to generalized desperation. The resulting “could this be the Apocalypse” trepidations gathered fears that have wound themselves around anything and everything that was pertinent to life and a lot that wasn’t.
Finally, in May, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope for reconstructing the world as we had come to know it. Coronavirus’ social-distancing restrictions were being loosened. It looked as if, after months of quarantine – virtually worldwide – there would be an opportunity to breathe freely, albeit with a mask, to limit exposure to the virus which could possibly mutate and become even more dangerous than the first version.
Sadly, the hopes were just that – “hopes”. On May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a cellphone video captured a confrontation. Millions watched in horror as a police officer named Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 43 seconds. The ghastly result – The 46-year-old African-American was dead before he was lifted into an ambulance that was finally brought to the scene.
I continually replay that event in my mind. I cannot make it go away… What is worse, as a long-time journalist, I am unable to find words that come anywhere close to describing what I and the rest of the world witnessed.
The reaction to the execution was swift in the US and internationally, too. Hundreds of thousands of people began to march, many carrying signs with Floyd’s last words – “I Can’t Breathe”. They did it, for the most part, peacefully day after day after day. Emotions were raw. As is often the case in troubled times, some decided to take advantage of the complex situation. They literally and figuratively tossed matches on a world full of freshly split kindling and watched as property, along with spirit, was destroyed. In the US, it was reminiscent of bygone protests that ended up destroying cities in the sixties and again in the riots after police were acquitted of the Rodney King beating nearly thirty years ago in Los Angeles. Humanity was running scared then, and now it was running again.
This time the dynamic has been different. “Black Lives Matter” has become the chant. It has filled the streets and has been shouted from the rooftops from virtually everywhere by everyone.
The outpouring of grief left national and local officials aghast and shaken. In some cases, leaders were visibly overcome in an effort to respond reasonably. Members of the athletic community at large, weighed in supporting the necessity of bringing about change. The reaction from tennis players was clear. They made their voices heard. Frances Tiafoe, James Blake, Katrina Adams, along with Taylor Townsend, Sloane Stephens, and both Serena and Venus Williams spoke candidly about how they had been dealing with racism because of their skin color their entire lives. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose father is Congolese and whose mother is French, addressed what it was like to be “different”, as a youngster, in Le Mans, France. Naomi Osaka has a Haitian father and a Japanese mother. Given the cultural type-casting that can dictate public perception in many Asian societies, she elaborated on being a “hafu” (only half-Japanese), which, to some, made her almost a non-person.
Of all of those in the tennis world who reacted to George Floyd’s death, Coco Gauff was the valedictorian of the class. She spoke to a crowd during a “Peaceful Protest” in Delray Beach, Florida telling those on hand about her grandmother’s struggles generations ago. Her call to action was as eye opening as it was chilling. As she has shown on the court, “She is wise beyond her years…”
— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) June 4, 2020
Tennis is constantly touted as the “Game of a Lifetime” without the appropriate asterisks noting – “If you meet certain standards”. While the sport has improved its inclusion policies in recent decades, its past is tainted with the slights that were pervasive if you happened to be Black, Brown or any color but White.
Historically, “diversification” has lumbered along at a laggardly pace. That is why the American Tennis Association was founded on November 30, 1916. Over the years, the ATA has become one of the major organizations representing African-American tennis in the US. Simply put, prejudice brought about its inception. The Association Tennis Club of Washington, D.C., and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Maryland, joined forces in response to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s policy of excluding players of color from participating in tournaments.
In those days, “East was East, and West was West”, and the difference between the two regions was more than geographic. But, make no mistake, both areas had to confront the same attitudes toward racial acceptance, which was the reason that players from in and around Los Angeles established The Western Federation of Tennis Clubs in 1916. The TWFTC was the West Coast counterpart of the ATA.
The first meeting of the TWFTC took place at the YMCA in downtown Los Angeles. Today, the organization is known as Pacific Coast Championship, Inc. and includes clubs from San Diego to Sacramento. The ATA has received kudos for opening tennis doors for African-American players. The TWFTC should not be overlooked for the essential role it played in the progress that slowly made its way across the country.
Looking back, it is ironic that in tennis history, little if any mention is ever made of Howard and Tuskegee Universities offering students an opportunity to play tennis beginning in the 1890s. Another significant, but ignored, reality is that at the end of the decade – 1898 to be specific – African-American players from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were taking part in tournaments that were staged at the Chautauqua Tennis Club in Philadelphia.
In the 104 years since the ATA and TWFTC came into being, change has taken tenuous strides. Generally, advances have been patterned by irregular steps, almost as if the attempts were searching for concrete reasons to take detours. Looking at the real picture, beyond the public relations applause, the “progress” took place in cul de sacs with rarely an exit.
Fortunately, there were situations when every street was not a dead end. Sadly, memories of the successful excursions have been fleeting, leaving many of those who remained still disenfranchised and still searching for pathways that would lead to different and truly meaningful results.
On July 29, 1940, Jimmie McDaniel, the ATA singles champion, played an exhibition match against Don Budge, the 1938 Grand Slam tournament winner, at the Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, New York. Though McDaniel lost in straight sets, the contest was historic because it was the first ever between a top African-American and a White player of note.
Budge complimented his opponent’s playing ability and opined that if McDaniel had an opportunity to compete against the best players in the country, “he’d rank in the first 10.”
The first National Junior Public Parks Championships was staged in 1948 at Griffith Park, a recreational facility near the present day Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Oscar Johnson, a Los Angeles native, won the Boys’ singles, becoming the first African-American to earn a USLTA championship.
Nonetheless, tennis’ racial barriers remained rigid until 1950 when Althea Gibson was allowed to play the US National Championships at Forest Hills, New York. Today, fans of the game are aware that Gibson and later, Arthur Ashe made a “difference”. They have been lauded for doing so. But, why were they the only ones? What happened to the others who tried to follow in their footsteps?
Henry Talbert, who passed away on January 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, was the first African-American USLTA administrator. In 1974, the UCLA graduate became the Tennis Programming Director at the organization’s New York City office. The appointment was a step in the right direction, but not a full-stride. Some community activists felt that Talbert was being forced to “tippy-toe” in order not to set-off the blink of a caution light because an African-American had been “placed in charge”. An exemplary individual, he survived the close scrutiny that ensued so that another silent milestone was passed.
At the beginning of 2015, Katrina Adams scored a resounding and deserved “triple.” She became the first African-America to hold the office of President, Chairman and CEO of the United States Tennis Association. She was also the first former professional tennis player and the youngest individual to have assumed that position.
Those mentioned above are each a credit to the game. But, for every Adams there have been thousands of other deserving individuals who have been overlooked because of something that they had no choice in – The color of their skin. Former President Barack Obama summed up the issues very well, saying, “Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals have been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable.”
There are still countless individuals of color, who have dedicated their lives to the game, yet their talents are under-utilized. They include administrators, university coaches, teaching professionals, local leaders and more. Many have been forced to “bite their tongues”. They know the “Silent Code” not to speak about such things as program inadequacies, compensation inequalities and being forced to contend with short term or annually renewable contracts which don’t foster job security confidence. They have become almost mute because of an ingrained fear that has escalated over the years due to the whim of an economy that undervalues their skill. Simply said, it is because they are Black and very likely viewed as expendable.
When I am not travelling the world writing about tennis, I have a home in a town that is part of Los Angeles County. That we, as a culture and more to the point a society, have barely moved beyond the Watts Riots of 1965, or Rodney King’s verdict on April 29, 1992 is baffling to me. It definitely reflects on everyone in America and for that matter, the world.
The killing of George Floyd may have tipped the US and other countries toward making credible reform. But, one thing is certain, reality must walk hand in hand with change. Reform can no longer be like a never-ending rondo. (A rondo is a musical form that keeps returning to the composition.) Music from the past must be remembered, but now a new tune needs to be composed. It must feature meaningful choruses that remind us how far we have come, along with how far we still have to go.
As society grapples with the ramifications of Minneapolis, the game must set itself apart and show that actions do speak louder than words – really. “Black and White” should only bring to mind an antique photograph. Times have changed. The status quo no longer works anywhere. There is no place for prejudice. It will no longer be tolerated.
Tennis, if it actually is “The Game of a Lifetime” should involve a ball, a net, a couple of racquets and at least two individuals – With no mention of ethnicity.
Alex Olmedo Was More Than Charming…
Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, the man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinary tennis, has left many with cherished memories, as Mark Winters’ story brings out…
He was born in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. It is 678 kilometers from the country’s largest city and its capital, Lima. His hometown is known for its spicy cuisine and the volcanic white stone that is used in the construction of the eye-catching buildings and houses that line the streets. He was the son of the man who took care of the clay tennis courts at the Club Internacional Arequipa. He taught himself to play and spent time working as a ball boy at the club. As a teenager, he made his way to the US and went on to become one of the game’s greats.
Though the story of Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, who passed away on December 9th due to brain cancer at the age of 84 at his home in Encino, California, reads like a fairytale, it is actually a good deal more dramatic than “Once upon a time”…
He first came to the country that would eventually become his home in 1951 to play in the US National Championship at Forest Hills, New York. In a prelude to threads that would be woven throughout his life, Olmedo lost 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 to Jacque Grigry, who was from Alhambra, California and was a three-time All-American at USC. Being the best player in Peru, at the beginning of 1954, the seventeen-year-old became an adventurer. In effect he played a role in the yet-to-be-made John Hughes movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. Thanks to money raised in Arequipa, Olmedo, who didn’t speak English at the time, journeyed from Peru to Havana by ship, then to Miami by plane, and came to California on a bus.
He ended up at Modesto Junior College, in the town of the same name, in Central California. He took English and other classes and played on the school’s tennis team which was one of the best in the state at the time. The 1954 squad included Olmedo, who lost to Pancho Contreras in the State Junior College Singles final, and Joaquin Reyes, who lost to Contreras in the state singles title round the year before. The trio, who were members of the third Modesto Junior College Hall of Fame induction class, moved on to USC. (In the mid-1950s, Modesto’s tennis program was a conduit to USC tennis and their acclaimed coach, George Toley. Players would finish their two-years at Modesto, then move south to become Trojan competitors.)
Their “good” on the JC level became even better in NCAA competition. Contreras and Reyes won the NCAA Doubles in 1955. The next year, Olmedo doubled, taking the singles title and then the doubles with Contreras. In 1958, he doubled again earning the singles champion and teamed with Ed Atkinson for the doubles trophy.
At five feet, ten inches tall, Olmedo wasn’t physically imposing. But, he had a formidable serve produced from a free-flowing motion that featured ballerina-like tip-toe balance as he tossed the ball up. That was merely a prelude to an exacting forehand and deft volleying. He was extremely quick and athletic. He had flair, along with a feel that combined to make him a solid competitor. Yet, the thing that made him a standout was his approach. In a 1959 story in Sports Illustrated, he revealed that from playing, not the advice of coaches, he learned how to play…
Perry T. Jones, the fabled leader of tennis in Southern California from 1930 until his death in 1970, was unrivaled when it came to controlling the game locally, nationally and for that matter, internationally. Aware that Olmedo had lived in the country for more than three years, along with the fact that Peru did not have a Davis Cup team, at the time, Jones recruited the twenty-two year-old to play for the US. And it just so happened that Jones was the US Davis Cup captain in 1958 and would be again in ’59.
Olmedo, who had made an impression in NCAA play, added to his accomplishments playing Davis Cup for Jones, as a non-US citizen, in the US’s 3-2 victory over Australia. The 1958 Challenge Round was played on the luxurious grass at the Milton Courts in Brisbane, December 29th through the 31st. The “Chief”, as he had been nicknamed because of his cultural background, was responsible for each one of the winner’s points. He defeated Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper both in four sets and teamed with Ham Richardson to outlast Anderson and Neale Fraser in an epic five set doubles contest. (Barry MacKay, who lost both his singles matches, was the other US team member; and Jones was the non-playing captain.)
In the semifinals, the US defeated Italy 5-0 on the grass at Royal King’s Park Tennis Club, in Perth, December 19th through the 21st. In the last match of the tie, Olmedo downed Orlando Sirola, the six foot-seven inch competitor who began playing the game at the age of 22 (in 1950), 20-18, 6-1, 6-4. The thirty-eight games played in the first set established the record for most games in a singles set. (As the holder of the title, Australia was not required to compete in the preliminary rounds of the Davis Cup.)
Olmedo’s trophy collecting continued at even more brisk pace in 1959. At the Australian National Championship at Memorial Drive in Adelaide, January 16th through the 26th, he defeated Fraser, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the final. On the lawns at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in London, Olmedo methodically vanquished Rod Laver, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the Wimbledon title round. It was strangely fitting that the match was played on Saturday, July 4th, a holiday celebrated in his adopted country. Looking to join – Jack Crawford of Australia (1933); Fred Perry of Great Britain (1934); Tony Trabert of the US (1955); Lew Hoad of Australia (1956) – as one of the few players to win three of the four majors in a signal season, Fraser gained revenge for his loss in Australia, confounding Olmedo in the US National Championship Singles final, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.
(The incomparable, J. Donald Budge set the standard winning all four of the Grand Slam singles titles in 1938.)
Former stars of the men’s Los Angeles tournament – Ted Schroeder, Alex Olmedo, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Arthur Ashe and Jack Kramer Photo Mark Winters
In 1960, Olmedo joined the professional ranks. He enjoyed moderate success on the Jack Kramer Tour winning the 1960 US Pro title, reaching the semifinals at the Wembley Pro events in 1960 and ’63, as well as being a quarterfinalist at the French Pro tournaments in 1962 and ’64. His competitive pro career came to an end in 1965 when he retired.
Shortly after his playing career came to an end, he began another as a teaching professional. Being personable and never too busy to chat made him an institution at the Beverly Hill Hotel. As the Director of Tennis at the legendary spa, he held court for close to forty years. During that time, he taught (and cajoled in a friendly manner) the likes of Katharine Hepburn and the irrepressible Charlton Heston, who played the game as if he were still Ben-Hur (the role that took him to movie stardom in 1959).
During the early 1970s before he became US Davis Cup captain, International Tennis Hall of Famer, Tony Trabert worked with Kathy May regularly at her father’s house in Beverly Hills. It was a mere three blocks from Olmedo’s teaching court at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was fortunate to be able to take part in Trabert’s workouts with May, who is Taylor Fritz’s mother. On a number of occasions, prior to the afternoon’s at David May’s or after they had taken place, I would drop-in on Olmedo. He treated me like a long-lost friend, often telling me “we had to find time to have a hit …”, or inviting me to come back and have lunch with him. Even more meaningful, whenever I needed quotes for a story I was putting together, he found a way to always be available for a chat. He would not only answer my questions, he would regularly add insights that varied from meaningful, to amusing, to scandalous. He had a magic personality.
Olmedo’s on court success was recognized in 1983 when he became an inaugural member of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men’s Hall of Fame. The USC Athletics Hall of Fame enshrined him in 1997. He was inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2000. The ultimate accolade came in 1987 when Olmedo became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. (And as mentioned above, he was in Modesto Junior College third Hall of Fame class.)
“The Chief” passed away at his Encino, California home. He is survived by Alejandro Jr., his son, along with Amy and Angela, his daughters, as well as four grandchildren.
The man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinarily well will be remember for much more. The foremost was for giving so many the opportunity to develop a friendship with Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez.
It Isn’t Just Football Who Are Mourning The Loss Of Diego Maradona
The world of football has lost one of its icons and tennis has lost a loyal fan.
It was during the 2013 Dubai Tennis Championships when Diego Armando Maradona stated that tennis was his second favourite sport after his beloved football.
The Argentinian sporting icon was a passionate and enthusiastic follower for more than 30 years until his death on Wednesday due to a heart attack. Regularly he would be seen watching matches in crowds at various tournaments. One of the earliest anecdotes took place in 1984 when he turned up to watch the French Open final and cheered on John McEnroe, who was taking on Ivan Lendl. Swiss journalist Rene Stauffer was sitting next to him and remembers the iconic figure ‘cheering like crazy.’
Of course it was his fellow countrymen and women who Maradona was most interested in supporting. One in particular was Juan Martin del Potro who won the 2009 US Open. He once joked ‘Next week I’ll be the one training del Potro myself. I will ask Franco Davin to step aside and Diego will train del Potro.‘ He appeared to have a great amount of respect for the former world No.3 who is one of thousands mourning his death.
“I feel that you return to the place that belongs to you, HEAVEN. For me you will never die. Rest in peace,” Del Potro wrote on Twitter.
After retiring from professional football in 1997 Maradona encountered his own personal demons as he battled with health issues and drug addiction. Nevertheless, his passion for sport never suffered. Attending various Davis Cup ties, he was usually seen shouting and cheering for his countrymen. He even had his own VIP box sporting his country’s flag with the words ‘The Maradona family is here‘ during the 2017 final between Argentina and Croatia.
Despite his calibre, Maradona said that he was star struck to meet some of tennis’ top names. One of those was former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki who got talking to him during the Dubai Tennis Championships seven years ago. At the time Maradona was an ambassador for the Dubai Sports Council (DSC).
“I had the pleasure to meet Caroline Wozniacki. She is one of the top players and she is very beautiful and a very nice girl,” he said. “Despite her ranking and all her achievements, she came to say hello to me, although I’m the one who wanted to get up and go and greet her.”
As for the three giants of men’s tennis, Maradona cheered them on and spoke to them on numerous occasions. Wheather that was in person or via video message.
For Rafael Nadal this year marks the 10th anniversary of when the two spoke with each other at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. When the news broke of Maradona’s death he was one of the first to pay tribute.
“One of the greatest sportsmen in history, Diego Maradona, has left us. What he did in football will remain. My deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his family, the world of football, and to all of Argentina.” He wrote on social media.
It was in the same tournament as Nadal when Novak Djokovic once said ‘to have him as a supporter is an incredible honour and a pleasure.‘ A few months on from that, the two briefly spent time together in Abu Dubai as the Serbian conducted his off-season training.
One of Maradona’s final interactions with tennis before his death took place last year when Roger Federer played an exhibition match in Buenos Aires. In a video message broadcasted on the screens of the stadium he said to the Swiss ‘you were, you are and will be the greatest. There’s no other like you.‘ Words that brought tears to the eye of the 20-time Grand Slam champion. Originally the two had planned to meet in person but were unable to due to Maradona’s health.
It was just three weeks ago when world No.9 Diego Schwartzman spoke out about the influence the footballing great has had on his country. The two never met in person but like many others, he was an idol for the tennis star.
“He’s been a sports idol since I was a kid. I’ve seen it on YouTube, not only, I’ve seen it on TV too. I’ve never seen him for real. He’s one of my soccer idols and I love soccer.” Schwartzman said.
“Wherever we go, everyone knows Argentina thanks to Maradona! This is the reason why I have the first name, Diego.”
Argentina has declared three days of national mourning following Maradona’s death.
The ATP Finals Exceeded Expectations But There Was No Changing Of The Guard
Daniil Medvedev has shown how a player outside of the Big Three can shine at one of the most significant tournaments in men’s tennis but it is wrong to read too much into this achievement.
On Sunday afternoon the 2020 tennis season ended with a pulsating showdown between two of the biggest names outside of the formidable Big Three.
Daniil Medvedev held his nerve to fight back and edge out Dominic Thiem in an enthralling roller-coaster encounter that lasted almost three hours. Besides claiming the biggest title of his career to date, the Russian has become only the fourth player in history to defeat the world’s top three players at the same tournament, following in the footsteps of Boris Becker, Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian.
In the aftermath of Medvedev’s victory came the inevitable question – is this the start of a new era in men’s tennis? For over the last decade the Tour has been dominated by Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Between them they have won 57 Grand Slam titles and shared the No.1 position continuously since August 2017. In fact, since February 2nd 2004, Andy Murray is the only other player outside of the trio to have held the top position.
“Hopefully all of us young guys will keep pushing and will have some great rivalries,” Medvedev told reporters on Sunday.
“Hopefully we can be there for a long time, maybe pushing the other generations back because that’s how we can be close to the Top 3.”
Medvedev’s emphatic performance at the end-of-season event showed that he has what it takes to scale the top of the game but recent history suggests that too much shouldn’t be read into it. Remarkably no member of the Big Three has won the event since Djokovic in 2015. Instead there have been five different champions most recently with each of those years raising hopes that there could be a changing of the guard on the Tour.
However, those hopes have never fully materialised. Prior to Medvedev, the four most recent ATP Finals champions have failed to win multiple titles the following year. In the case of 2017 winner Grigor Dimitrov, he hasn’t won a trophy of any sort since.
|ATP Finals champion||Titles won over the next 12 months||Best Grand Slam run over next 12 months||Year-end ranking 12 months later|
|Andy Murray (2016)||1||French Open SF||16 (down 15)|
|Grigor Dimitrov (2017)||0||Australian Open QF||19 (down 16)|
|Alexander Zverev (2018)||1||French Open QF||7 (down 4)|
|Stefanos Tsitsipas (2019)||1||French Open SF||6 (no change)|
It can be argued that the numbers above fail to tell the full story. For example Andy Murray’s injury woes started to hinder him the year after he won the tournament and Tsitsipas’ season has been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it does illustrate that staying at the very top of the game on a consistent basis without beng a member of the Big Three is a tough ask, raising questions about if the landscape of men’s tennis will ever change before Djokovic and co retire?
“There is going to be a time when they are not around anymore, then it’s going to be so important to keep all the tennis fans and to keep them with this great sport,” world No.3 Thiem explains.
“I think that’s our challenge, that we perform well and play great in big tournaments to become huge stars ourselves.
“It’s super important for tennis in general because they (the Big Three) gave so much to the sport. That’s our challenge to keep all those people with tennis and to maybe continue their story.”
Thiem boasts the honour of having at least five wins over every member of the trio, something that has only ever been achieved by Murray. In London he defeated both Nadal and Djokovic which was something Medvedev also managed to achieve during the same week.
Veteran journalist Steve Flink perhaps is one of the most knowledgeable figures when it comes to the evolution of men’s tennis in the Open Era. His work in the sport dates back to 1972 when he was a statistician covering the US Open for CBS and working alongside the iconic Bud Collins. In a video chat with UbiTennis, Flink notes the recent shortcomings by ATP Finals champions but is hopeful that 2021 could be different.
“I don’t think we should put too much stock on this. On the other hand, Medvedev has ended the year strong and Thiem has now finally won a major at the US Open. You have to believe that these two guys will be threatening (for titles) next year with Thiem challenging for his second major and Medvedev to maybe win his first. So maybe there will be some more equity in men’s tennis,” he said.
Only time will tell about what may happen next year and if Medvedev’s ATP Finals triumph will have any impact at all. The only certainty is that more people are starting to talk about the other guys and that is a victory in itself for the future of the sport.
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