In early July, Naomi Osaka wrote an op-ed for Esquire, taking a public stance in the political debate surrounding George Floyd’s death. I think this is an interesting choice, and an uncommon one for a top tennis player in recent years, and therefore it deserves some reflection.
First and foremost, I want to clarify my position. I think that a sports website should just write about sports. And I don’t think that readers expect opinions about racism in the USA or Black Lives Matter from a tennis article. In my opinion themes like these require a knowledge that I do not possess. I have my ideas, obviously, as Osaka does, but I don’t want to write about the political side of racism.
I would like to talk about a different topic: what does it mean for Osaka to take a political position in a public way? I remember that at the end of May, before the Esquire article, Naomi posted a video on social media from Minneapolis, where she went to join the protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death. While this message didn’t resonate as much in the press, it could be argued that it was a stronger one, because it is not common for a public figure to go to a different city to make a statement on such a politically-charged issue.
Maybe I’m wrong, but, for example, I don’t believe that Serena Williams has ever done something like this. Even her boycotting of Indian Wells has always been focused on the individual tournament and on the personal mistreatment she had experienced, rather than on a wide-ranging political issue.
Scrolling through Osaka’s Twitter page, we can easily find a few tweets, from recent weeks, that are concerned with political and social matters.
As mentioned above, it is not common that a top tennis player like Naomi (a former world N.1 and Slam winner) decides to take a public position in the political arena. We are used to great sportsmen who eschew voicing their personal ideas. The reason why they opt for this kind of approach could be personal: they might have little interest in the situation, or a wish to defend their privacy. However, the main reason that comes to mind is money, because the most popular sportsmen draw a large slice of their revenues from sponsorships, which in turn might not be exceedingly happy with their public faces potentially alienating customers.
Some weeks ago, Forbes wrote that Osaka, at 22, is at the helm of a small commercial empire. With 37.4 million dollars in revenues from last year, Naomi is the highest-paid woman athlete ever as well as the 29th highest-paid athlete with no gender distinction.
If we look at her sources of income one-by-one, things become more interesting. Osaka makes 34 millions from sponsorships – the eighth highest figure in sports. In the tennis world, only Federer earns more from endorsements. Djokovic, Nadal, and Serena Williams earned less than Naomi in 2019.
It could be rightly assumed that every agent of a great athlete suggests that their customer keep their opinions to themselves on issues that could upset the fans, and, consequently, the sponsors. Celebrity spokespeople are asked to please the masses as much as they can. When such a person has a truly wide platform, he, or she, has to take “ecumenical” and non-divisive attitudes.
There are obviously opposite cases, sportsmen that are chosen by companies because they are against something or someone. I think, for instance, of Dennis Rodman or, more recently, of Colin Kaepernick. But it is very unlikely that they will become the most paid individuals by sponsors.
Nowadays, it’s not that relevant if some political choices could appear to pander to the mainstream (something that should be proven true): in any case, for those who have to promote a product on the market, it is not only important to connect with the majority, but also not to antagonise the minority.
Probably, the best sport testimonial of the last few decades is Michael Jordan; this infamous quote summarises the marketing zeitgeist: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” We don’t know whether the statement is true or not (Jordan may never have said it, but he has not even disowned it before it became proverbial), but the fact remains that it embodies very well the idea of a spokesperson that must handle with extreme discretion certain topics, because they can become explosive.
Sport’s history teaches us that taking a public stance can be devastating for an athlete’s career. One of the best-known cases is that of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman, who raised their fists in protests during the 200 meters medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. They paid a steep price for that image which became iconic, all over the world.
Back to tennis, maybe Martina Navratilova was the player that, during her career, stuck her neck out the most on non-sports issues. When she came out as a lesbian, according to the mentality of the time, it was a political act, with a stronger impact than it could appear today, and that was followed by consequences.
In Unmatched, the ESPN documentary dedicated to her rivalry with Chris Evert in 2013, Martina recalled that, when she began to win a lot, the American media framed her matches against Chris as a fight between good and evil. In that clash, Evert played for the good side (the “next-door girlfriend”) and Navratilova the evil (a lesbian from a Communist country):
Of course, when comparing the consequences on Navratilova’s career with those suffered by the sprinters of Mexico City, we realize that Martina had far fewer problems. And this will certainly also apply to Osaka; not only because times have changed, but also because, unlike in other disciplines, a professional tennis player is essentially an autonomous entity, who (if in a winning position) does not have to get in the crosshairs of a governing body in order to practise his or her craft.
However, it’s not all strawberries and cream by any means. A tennis player who enters in a collision course with a national federation may have to give up the Davis or the Fed Cup and most likely also the Olympics. Speaking of the Olympics, Osaka was chosen by the Tokyo 2020 committee as the face of the Games (now postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic); and who knows if the organizers of the event liked her latest public moves.
This is a window into another of Naomi’s facets: she is a Japanese player who is being vocal about American issues. Osaka was born in Japan from a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, but her family moved to the USA when she was three, so she has lived there for about 20 years.
Therefore, Osaka’s choice is perhaps a little more courageous if we consider the fact that Naomi protested in the United States as a “foreigner“. As a matter of fact, due to a peculiarity in Japanese legislation, she had to give up her US passport last year. But evidently in this case her personal history, ripe with transnational cross-contaminations, prevailed, and that is something not to be confined within the on-paper limits of a passport. She said it to herself in a part of Esquire’s article: “A single label has never been enough to describe me, but they tried anyway. Is she Japanese? American? Haitian? Black? Asian? Well, I’m all of these things together at the same time.”
Here is another element that should not be underestimated in Osaka’s decision: her political choice in favour of a plural society, expressed as a Japanese player and citizen. Let’s not forget that if Osaka has earned so much, she mainly owes it to Japanese endorsement deals. And Japanese culture and mentality are not American ones.
Naomi wrote about her relationship with her country of birth: “Japan is a very homogenous country, so tackling racism has been challenging for me. I have received racist comments online and even on TV. But that’s the minority. In reality, biracial people—especially biracial athletes—are the future of Japan. We (myself, Rui Hatchimura and others) have been embraced by the majority of the public, fans, sponsors, and media.”
On this hand it should be remembered that last year controversy sparked for a cartoon made by a Japanese sponsor of Naomi’s, in which she was portrayed as a white-skinned player. Back then, she had expressed herself in a more accommodating way (“They should have told me about it”). It is difficult to say whether she deemed the incident as irrelevant, or whether she still felt uncomfortable expressing her own views in such a decisive way as she did recently. And this evolution leads us to the more personal aspects of her commitment.
Coronavirus And The Adria Tour: Should Djokovic Be Held Accountable?
Formally not, despite many people, including him and his wife, testing positive to the virus causing COVID-19. More than a few, if we consider that Novak Djokovic is the president of the ATP Player Council.
By Alessandro Stella
The debate surrounding the cases of the coronavirus at the Adria Tour, which soon turned into a Djokovic berating platoon, is clearly the theme of the week in tennis. After the announcement of the positive test of Grigor Dimitrov, who was on the court in Zadar against Borna Coric on Saturday, the Croatian player also announced the ensuing morning that he had contracted the coronavirus. Next came Marco Panichi, Djokovic’s physio, and Kristijan Groh, Dimitrov’s coach, while according to some early rumours (confirmed by the Telegraph) Djokovic would have refused to submit to the swab in Croatia as asymptomatic to test himself directly on his return to Belgrade, together with his family members – he later tested positive, along with his wife Jelena, fellow countryman Viktor Troicki (his wife was also infected) and NBA star Nikola Jokic.
Why Djokovic is getting all the slander is easily explained: as the president of the ATP Player Council, he promoted the organising of the Adria Tour, an event slated to take place in four countries (the final two stops have now been cancelled) with his brother Djordje as the director, and whose opening fixtures, those of Belgrade and Zara, took place at full capacity and without any regard for social distancing, both on and off the court. In addition to post-match hugging, the players were also in close contact during the collateral activities of the event: a football game in Belgrade, a basketball game in Zadar, and even a night out at a local club. Even before he came under attack for promoting an exhibition without strict health protocols, the world No.1 had already been accused of having deserted at ATP Zoom meeting of June 10, in which the guidelines for the restarting of the season were discussed.
THE ADRIA TOUR DIDN’T BREAK ANY RULES
Let’s try to make order. The first question should pertain the legitimacy of the event, while the second should interrogate its propriety. Let’s start with the former: the Adria Tour was held in compliance with the Coronavirus protocols enforced in the countries that hosted the first two gigs, namely Serbia and Croatia. “It can be criticized,” Nole said during a press conference at the Belgrade event. “We can say, for example, that maybe it’s dangerous. But it is not for me to evaluate what is right from a public health standpoint: we are simply following the rules of the Serbian government.”
What Djokovic claims is true. On the website of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the policies adopted by the various countries to combat the COVID-19 pandemic can be consulted, and from the Serbian one we can learn that as of May 7 the containment measures – which for approximately a month had entailed a 12-hour curfew a month from 5pm to 5am – were relaxed. For the last month, it has no longer been necessary to provide evidence of negative testing upon entering the country, and starting from June 5 the restrictions on public participation in outdoor events have been removed, albeit with a metre of interpersonal distance still being “strongly recommended.”
To recap, there are no formal bans in Serbia, although the government still suggests – without obligation – to take some precautions. A choice, that of President Aleksandar Vučić – who has just been re-elected with a landslide majority, 62.4% of the votes – which according to some European media had the specific purpose of restoring a patina of serenity in the wake of the elections, initially scheduled for April 26 and then postponed by two months because of the virus.
As for Croatia, at the end of May the ban on organizing public events with more than 40 participants was lifted, and the feasibility of each event has since been referred to the evaluations of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, which evidently gave the go-ahead to the Adria Tour. Following the positive tests of Dimitrov and Coric, the head of the infectious diseases department Bernard Kaić spoke on television to calm the citizens of Zadar, explaining that “it is necessary to spend a lot of time with the infected person in order to become infected,” and that therefore those who were simply sitting in the stands are not at a high infection risk.
IS DJOKOVIC IN THE CLEAR THEN?
Theoretically, yes, even in the event that the legal responsibility of organizing the Adria Tour could be traced back to him. The question that cannot be overlooked, however, concerns the public role of Djokovic, and therefore the appropriateness of promoting an event that has completely disregarded social distancing (remember, strongly advised by the Serbian government) while the pandemic is still reaping victims in several parts of the planet.
In addition to being the strongest tennis player on the planet, which in itself would be enough to expect additional attention for actions and statements that may have direct consequences on the community, Djokovic is the first reference of tennis players by virtue of his role as the president of the Player Council. It is a political position in all respects, which implies political responsibilities (limited to the world of tennis, of course). Nobody forced him to take on this responsibility, which once assumed should be honoured in full.
Are we therefore assuming that Djokovic did not fully honour it in this case? Yes, to a certain extent. The Adria Tour could certainly be organized, but if the positivity of so many of the participants – there is no guarantee that they got infected by participating in the performance – had emerged on the side-lines of an event held with the suggested precautions, Djokovic would not have become the target he has become in the last few days.
One more aspect should be factored in. Djokovic rightly pointed out that it is not up to him to evaluate what is right vis-à-vis public health, but, precisely by virtue of the same principle, he doesn’t seem to have the prerogative to send such a free-for-all message like he did by planning the Adria Tour in this fashion. This does not imply that there were any bad intentions on the part of the Serbian player, just as there was no bad intentions in the words of the Italian politicians who, a few days before the outbreak of the epidemic in Lombardy, invited to everyone to go on with their lives as usual, and the same goes for British politics. Whether it is out of personal conviction, because he believes – rightly or wrongly – that the virus is no longer dangerous, or for a more Machiavellian purpose (perhaps to convince the US Open to relax its strict measures?), Djokovic has endorsed an initiative that could have had negative consequences on other people.
He was reckless, like the other players who were present, and it would be ethically incorrect not to point it out. It is one thing to be convinced that the virus never existed or is no longer dangerous, another thing is to translate this thought into actions of public interest.
To say that he was reckless doesn’t mean that he deliberately favoured the transmission of the virus, because there may also be no causal link between the Adria Tour and the early positive testing of Dimitrov and Coric, but rather that he chose to ignore the precautions who at this moment have the crucial task of guiding us at a time of collective uncertainty, of hypotheses and conflicting scientific opinions.
Djokovic does not know if the virus is still dangerous or not, as we do not know it or even those who have studied the subject for years (this should already be enough to induce in us a certain evaluative moderation, sadly forgotten). Djokovic may also be right, but it an unaware manner; he cannot be sure of the message he is sending. This is what precautions are for, however useless they may seem, and indeed the hope is exactly that one day they may be proved to have become useless – it will mean that everything has gone according to plan.
What is mistakenly interpreted as a devaluation of the scientific method and adduced as an argument in favour of the free-for-all thesis, namely that virologist A is convinced that asymptomatic cases are not dangerous for the transmission of the virus while virologist B argues otherwise, is actually the normal scientific debate that occasionally ends up in the public eye due to the planetary scope of the subject matter.
Science is actually stumbling in the dark, because that’s how it goes before the evidence makes everyone coalesce around a thesis, and we have a civic duty not to make things worse in this period of reckoning and stabilisation for researchers. If some virologists mess up in the haste of expressing themselves, if politicians and decision-makers overwhelmed by the crisis make shaky and incomprehensible choices, that doesn’t legitimise more than usual to do what we want to fight a supposed design that would enslave us to the drug companies (by the way, they are certainly not be the only corporate entities in the world that are trying to make up for missing revenues; many others have lost and will lose money because of the crisis, and are certainly not raising glasses of Dom Perignon, so the ice for this conspiracy theory feels paper-thin at best).
What the scientific community perhaps has not been able to communicate with sufficient clarity is the following concept: we do not know what we should know about the virus yet, nor do we have a valid strategy to cure and eradicate it, so in the meantime we ask you to sacrifice a few of your liberties so that enough time can be had to find a definitive countermeasure. Planning and hosting a tennis exhibition with some kind of social distancing in the stands and fewer on-court hugs, all in all, would have been a bearable sacrifice.
Translated by Andrea Ferrero; edited by Tommaso Villa
The New 2020 Calendar Works, But Only For 120 players…….And Serena Williams
Low-ranked players are on a warpath – once again, the TV money prevailed. The Cincinnati Master “poached” the qualies from Flushing Meadows. However, the US Open is trying to be flexible to lure the stars.
The ATP-ITF-WTA mountain has brought forth something far bulkier than a mouse. Starting August 23, a pair of Slams and a trifecta of Master 1000 tournaments will take place over a seven-week span, hoping that Covid-19 will not strike again – an unprecedented bonanza for tennis-starved fans, even if the two Slams were to be played with a personnel shortage.
Looking at historical precedents, 79 of the men’s Top 100 boycotted Wimbledon in 1973 in solidarity with Nikki Pilic (despite Stan Smith admitting that he wasn’t the most popular athlete on tour), but the Championships didn’t really suffer from the blow, and Jan Kodes, that year’s winner, never saw his status as a Slam champion diminished in the slightest – it should be remembered that the Czech won a pair of French Open titles and reached two more finals at Forest Hills, so his accomplishments can’t really be disputed.
Roland Garros is currently looking poised for a more competitive field, since it will take place a month later and since 75% of the ATP Top 100 and 70% of the WTA Top 30 spawns from Europe. The US Open, on the other hand, could benefit from Cincinnati being moved to Flushing Meadows, creating a three-week barrage of points and money not to be easily relinquished.
The question is: how many players will be able to scratch their way through seven weeks at such a high level, four of which laden with five-setters, all the while crossing the Atlantic halfway through and living in unfamiliar conditions? The risk of injuries to multiple players is real. The necessity to start earning again will push many to go all the way, but it will also force others to skip a few gigs to maximise their winning chances.
Each of the involved tournaments were desperate to host their respective events, lest a financial disaster might happen. Rome is the ultimate example: Angelo Binaghi, the president of the Italian federation, claimed multiple times that he was willing to move the tournament to other cities and on different surfaces just to make it happen – he deserves understanding, as do all the other promoters and owners.
Wimbledon was insured, while everybody else was not. However, the AELTC is just short of being a charity, since most of its revenue goes to the LTA, and thus it’s far easier to invest for a company whose first objective isn’t necessarily to make money, while other owners, like Madrid’s Ion Tiriac, can’t afford to be so magnanimous with their investments, and the same goes for the Italian and French federations.
The US Open (and the New York Times) immediately highlighted that Serena Williams is on board, and enthusiastically so. After losing four Slam finals, mostly as the favourite and without winning a single set – Patrick Mouratoglou explained some of the issues she’s faced – Serena’s chase for her 24th title, which would put her on par with Margaret Court, will be the leitmotif of the tournament, provided she goes far.
However, new tournament director Stacey Allaster is having to rely on the support of the entire USTA to quell the doubts of European top draws like Nadal, Djokovic, and Halep. Their misgivings are probably the reason behind the update in the rule concerning the number of staff members that the players will be allowed to take with them to the Big Apple – despite rumours of just a person being allowed, the final amount was set at three. Other concessions involve the possibility for the wealthiest to rent a flat near Corona Park instead of being confined to the JFK bubble. I can only marvel at who will be tasked to check that the players don’t go clubbing, given the precedent set in Belgrade last weekend.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the US ultimately heeded to the call of money. The best players presented heavy demands to enter the draw, and they got all they asked for.
The whole testing machine is still to be finalised, especially in terms of frequency – I asked a question on the matter during the USTA press conference on Wednesday, but it’s all still up in the air. Every official is calling on the players’ sense of responsibility but, judging from the latest exhibition tournaments, I’m not sure many actually do have one.
Moving on to the lower-ranked players, the US Open has decided to devolve $6.6 million to both tours (3.3 each), which will then spend them however they want, either to compensate the players who were damaged by the cancellation of the qualifiers, or to organise and/or support a few ATP Challengers and WTA Internationals.
The US Open will guarantee a spot in the draw to the top-ranked 120 players. Federer aside, everybody else should be game: it’s rather unlikely that dozens of clay specialists might decide to skip the hardcourt season to focus on the Madrid-Rome-Paris trio, or that a similar amount is too scared to play. Those who’ll make it to the later stages in New York might elect to skip Madrid, sure, but those who are all but certain to bow out early will definitely participate in both.
Life is going to be hard for those who won’t make the main draws of the Slams. After four months of inactivity, these players will be forced to stay put even longer, since the Challengers’ schedule is still scrambled. Not just that: while the early rumours pointed to the tours being active in December, that now no longer seems to be the case. On paper, something could be done after August 14, perhaps a $150k could be organised in Orlando during the Washington week…
Even if it were possible to plan a few Challengers, though, these would be so few that no players with a lower rank than 180 would be able to break in before the cut-off. In addition, we need to remember that only the winners of such events make relevant money, while entering the main draw of a Slam automatically means $50k, they could make twice as much, should they win their first-round match – that’s without speaking of the different standings of these achievements. Anyway, the bottom-line is that the omens aren’t great for those who are ranked outside the Top 200.
As largely expected, business won, even though the ATP top brass somewhat “pretended” to have chosen one of two options during last week’s conference call in order to appease the players ranked between the 200th and the 400th spot, when, in realty, the other has never been viable, e.g. the possibility to cancel Cincinnati and play the usual three qualifying rounds in New York. The first option meant that the same players would feature in both events, while the second meant throwing a bone to some players ranked outside the upper echelon of the sport.
The ATP picked the former exclusively for financial reasons, as a Master 1000 event means TV rights, sponsorships, and money, while the qualies’ revenues are usually non-existent. Moreover, a few of the top dogs (Shapovalov among them) began to complain about having to debut in a five-set format, and the ATP didn’t miss the chance to placate them, while de facto throwing everyone else under the bus. Sure, the US Open offered a lump sum as compensation, but who knows how it will be spent and according to what criteria.
The point system is being scorched as well, because of all its contradictions and idiosyncrasies. It would be just right for a player to have a full year to defend or improve on its previous results (therefore defending and improving on his/her own revenue), but now someone like Gianluca Mager, who scored big in February, will only have the months spanning from August to January to benefit from his wins, while the Fognini’s of this world, who built their ranking in 2019, will keep their spot until the end of 2020 and all the way to April 2021 – quite a difference between 5 and 16 months. To be clear, however, there still is no clarity on how the rankings will be assessed and when the points will be “thawed”.
I will finish by pointing out the Paris Master 1000 tournament is currently slated to go ahead between November 1 and 8, about three weeks after the end of the French Open. In the same city. With the same players. Money goes to money, an old truth that I still have to see refuted.
Article translated by Tommaso Villa
Tennis Can’t Be About Black Or White
Throughout its history the “Game of a Lifetime”, hasn’t always been the game for everyone’s life. The fact is, it often hasn’t been “that” game at all. George Floyd’s death has provided a wake-up call that has heightened the need for introspection by everyone, everywhere.
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.
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