On George Floyd, racism, Naomi Osaka’s activism, and the struggles of Ashe, Gibson and Noah - UBITENNIS
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On George Floyd, racism, Naomi Osaka’s activism, and the struggles of Ashe, Gibson and Noah

Decades ago, black players had to concede contested points to their white opponents, and also had to pick up the balls during changeovers. In college tennis, white student-athletes dined in restaurants while their black teammates had to wait for a sandwich in their cars.

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There can be no indifference to what happened in America after George Floyd was brutally murdered last May by a policeman who had previously gotten away with multiple instances of violent, inhuman, and racist behaviour. “I can’t breathe” has become the motto of more or less peaceful protesters around the world, including, among the non-violent, recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka.   

What happened in Minneapolis stirred the public discourse globally, not just in the United States. Everybody knows that racism still exists, even if not as virulently as it did in the time of slavery. It’s not just an issue pertaining Trump’s America or its violent and aggressive cops, and it’s not just an issue pertaining football fans who taunt the other team’s black players.

A tennis website is not the most suited space for a discussion of the complex implications of racism – there are far more appropriate places and commentators than those that UbiTennis can offer. For the time being, all I want to do here is to say that there is no more dishonourable stance than to claim that the problem doesn’t exist, or that it’s being allotted too much room by the media.

The problem exists, and we can all see it. Having said this, I’d like to do my part by reminiscing on the tribulations that so many African American tennis players have had to endure. The first example that comes to mind is that of Jimmie McDaniel, the best black player before World War II, a 6-foot-5 lefty who won the American Tennis Association’s segregated tennis championship four times, and who was “allowed” to play an exhibition match against Don Budge, the first man to complete the Grand Slam, on July 29, 1940. He lost that match, 6-1 6-2, but the encounter moved the American public, an extraordinary feat, especially given Jimmie’s turbulent past – the son of a Negro League baseball players, he had gotten a 15-year-old pregnant when he was 18 and had spent two years in juvie. Former Olympic medallist Ralph Metcalfe (he won four in Berlin, including the 4×100 relay with Jesse Owens, right under Hitler’s furious gaze, and had personal bests of 10.3 and of 20.6 seconds in the 100 and 200 metres, respectively) awarded him a track scholarship to attend the Xavier University in New Orleans, but Jimmie’s real penchant was for the racquet.  

Don Budge and Jimmy McDaniel (Photo from Whirlwind The Godfather Of Black Tennis by Doug Smith)

Another name is that of Oscar Johnson, from Long Beach in California, the first African American to win a national championship, the National Parks Junior Singles, when he was 17, in 1948. He died last March, after being awarded in Newport’s Hall of Fame in 1987, an accolade he received long before he was enshrined into the Black Hall of Fame in 2010. One more is that of Robert Ryland, one of the first two black players to compete in the NCAA tennis tournament, in 1946, who once recalled: “In those days, we had to face so many struggles due to racial discrimination. When we set out to go to play in Indiana, against Purdue or others, we used to send our white teammates to a restaurant, where they were allowed to sit and eat inside, so that they would buy us some sandwiches to have in our cars.

In the ensuing decades, Althea Gibson rose to prominence after enduring all sorts of abuse, as did Arthur Ashe, who won the US Open in 1968 at Forest Hills, inside whose West Side Tennis Club he theoretically wasn’t have even allowed to enter, seven years before becoming the first African-American to win at Wimbledon. In 1981, Ashe said: “You can’t really compare tennis with football or basketball. When Jackie Robinson broke the colour line in ‘47 by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, there were dozens of good players in the Negro leagues who were ready to follow suit. When Althea Gibson, the first important African American woman in tennis history, won the National Championships on the grass of Forest Hills in ‘57 and in ’58, there were no talented black players waiting in line to cross that threshold. Black people don’t identify themselves with this sport, neither on nor off the court.”

In 1987, he added: “What we need is an American Yannick Noah. In many ways, I wasn’t a great model to follow. We need someone with flair and who plays a creative brand of tennis. And this person should behave like Julius Erving [Editor’s note: an NBA player, nicknamed “Dr. J”, who was famous for his athleticism as well as for his distinguished manners]”

Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil, who grew up playing on public courts in Texas, have told many stories about the abuse they had to face. Right now, I don’t have the time to fetch their autobiographies from my personal library to recount some of these unbelievable anecdotes, but I can tell you how embarrassing they are for any human being provided with even a shred of awareness and sensitivity.

The Williams sisters didn’t have it easy either. Although breaking out as champions when they were teenagers certainly opened a few more doors, their father, Richard Williams, never trusted this sort of indulgence. Maybe he exaggerated (but this is the type of character he was) when he said that the crowd’s racist taunts during Serena’s 2001 Indian Wells final was “the worst act of racial prejudice since Martin Luther King’s murder,” but it’s true that the crowd was utterly disgraceful that day, insulting him and Venus as well as soon as they took their seats in the stands.

I hope you will now forgive me for going through a collection of quotes on the subject, most of them by Ashe, a great man before he became a champion – the American delegate to the UN once said of him: “Arthur Ashe took the burden of race and wore it like a mantle of dignity” – and by a young Cameroonian, Yannick Noah, who was discovered by Arthur himself during a trip to Africa.

Here’s one of his memorable quotes then, pronounced in 1988: “Thanks to the combination of a few factors, black Americans now constitute the majority of athletes in all major sports. This didn’t happen in tennis because the sport was organised to discourage the participation of black people.”

I remember a fan in Rome cheering him on, “Daje Arturooo!” (“Come on, Arthuuur!”), during an indoor match, but I also remember the ineffable Ilie Nastase giving him the moniker of “Negroni” without pissing him off, at least until their match at the 1975 Stockholm Masters, when, under my own eyes, Ilie started to shamelessly complain about the lighting inside the Kungliga Halle: “Every time Ashe comes to the net I can’t see him, it’s too dark in here!” He said that, and more, until the match was suspended. Ashe, incensed like I’d never seen him before, walked out of the court, and the match was at first defaulted to his opponent, before the decision was deservedly overturned – Nastase was noted for his offensive off-court humour, and what’s more baffling is that he used to say, “hi, racist!” every time he ran into South African players like Drysdale or McMillan.

I recall one of Arthur’s prophecies, from 1992: “It’s more likely that the next black Slam champion will be a woman rather than a man. The best male athletes still prefer basketball, football, or track.” It’s fair to say that the Williams, who were initially nicknamed “the Ghetto Sisters” by the press, fulfilled this forecast, and then some! Serena won 23 Slams to Venus’s 7…

On page 2, the words of Althea Gibson and Yannick Noah as well as Naomi Osaka’s emergence as an activist

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Andy Murray Makes Retirement Hint After 500th Hard Court Win In Dubai

Andy Murray won his 500th hard court match in Dubai, placing him fifth on the all-time list.

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Andy Murray further hinted at retirement after securing a 500th hard court win of his career in Dubai.

The former world number one picked up his second win of the year with a 4-6 7-6(5) 6-3 victory over Denis Shapovalov.

In typical Andy Murray fashion, the Brit came back from a set down to defeat the out-of-sorts Canadian as he progressed to the second round.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUVj537F-wQ

The win means Murray now has 500 career wins on a hard court and that is an achievement the world number 67 is proud of, “It’s not bad,” Murray told the ATP website as he sits fifth on the all-time list of hard court wins.

“Obviously hard court has been a great surface for me over the years and 500 is a lot of matches so I’m very proud of that. There are not many players that have done that, so great to get to 500 before I’m done.”

However those post-match comments weren’t the most shocking ones as Murray once again hinted at retirement this season.

The Brit has made subtle remarks that this year may be his last one but Murray’s comments today suggests that he may have already made his decision, “I probably don’t have too long left but I’ll do as best as I can these last few months,” Murray was quoted by ESPN as saying.

“I still love competing and still love the game but it gets harder and harder to compete the older you get, to keep your body fit and fresh.”

If the end is near for Murray than the Brit will look to end his career on a high for the next few months.

Before thinking about retirement Murray will look to go further in Dubai when he takes on either Ugo Humbert or Gael Monfils in the second round.

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Perspective And Fatigue: The Two Sides Of Iga Swiatek’s Dubai Defeat

Iga Swiatek spoke about perspective and fatigue after her semi-final exit in Dubai.

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Iga Swiatek showed two sides to her defeat in Dubai as the world number one surprisingly failed to win the title despite being the favourite in the semi-finals.

Heading into her semi-final in Dubai, Swiatek was heavy favourite to win her second consecutive WTA title after claiming the title in Doha the week before.

However Swiatek was unsuccessful in her bid to reach the final as she lost to Anna Kalinskaya 6-4 6-4.

It was a bitterly disappointing defeat for Swiatek who missed a golden opportunity to establish even more dominance ahead of Indian Wells.

As all champions do Swiatek offered perspective to her defeat as she looks ahead to the rest of the season, “I mean, I’m angry but on the other hand, there aren’t many players that actually survive these kinds of tournaments so I just kind of have to let it go and accept it,” Swiatek was quoted by Tennis Majors.

There was not only perspective offered but also fatigue as expectations and pressure can force simple mistakes from the best players in the world.

The world number one acknowledged Kalinskaya’s performance but did admit her own performance contributed to the defeat, “Today I would say, I mean she [Kalinskaya] played well and for sure she deserves to be in the final, but I feel like it was more about me and my level,” Swiatek told Tennis Majors.

“I wanted to be focused on myself and I wasn’t really able to implement any tactics that I had. Usually, when I tell myself what to do, I can improve my game but today I was so out of power and tired that I just couldn’t. Day by day, it was a little bit worse.”

Swiatek will hope to re-energize herself ahead of the sunshine double in America.

Last year Swiatek lost to eventual champion Elena Rybakina in the semi-finals at Indian Wells before withdrawing from Miami.

The Pole will look to improve last year’s performance when she plays Indian Wells, which starts on the 6th of March.

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‘Speechless’ Mensik Reaches Maiden ATP Final In Doha

Jakub Mensik is into his first ATP final in Doha.

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Jakub Mensik admitted he was left speechless after reaching his first ATP final in Doha.

The 18 year-old continued his remarkable week with a 6-4 1-6 6-3 semi-final victory over Gael Monfils.

The Czech Republican produced clinical tennis as he beat the 2018 champion to reach his maiden ATP final.

After the match Mensik admitted he was left ‘speechless’ and spoke about the influence Monfils had on his career, “It is amazing. Hopefully not the last one [final]. Incredible week so far,” Mensik told the ATP website.

“Today again with Gael, he played unbelievable. I know it is tough to play against him, especially with his good movement. For me every point I have to play my best game.

“I have to say this performance was one of the best in my entire life. I am so glad I reached this level in the semis, so hopefully tomorrow I play like this. An amazing feeling with my first ATP final. I am speechless.

“I told him when I was young I watched him a lot on the TV. One of the biggest showman on court. He is a great guy, so hopefully in the future we will meet once again. The rallies were so fun with him.”

Mensik has so far beaten three former champions this week as he also defeated Andy Murray and Andrey Rublev this week.

Now Mensik will aim to win his first ATP title as he takes on Karen Khachanov in Saturday’s final.

Should Mensik win the title he could climb to 75 in the world as he started the week at 116 in the world.

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