This week during the 2013 version of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, James Blake, a perennial top player since 1999, is retiring from the sport. Long seen as the best African American hope to continue the legacy of Arthur Ashe, Blake did achieve the no. 4 national and worldwide ranking in 2006, was captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in its 1987 successful run, and an earner of close to $10 million on the professional tennis circuit. Although he had an enviable career, Blake did not reach the heights of success of Arthur Ashe.
Now that he is retiring, there remain very few African American males in the tennis pipeline with that kind of talent and cachet, save a Donald Young, who will be a participant in this year’s U.S. Open.
It is the Williams sisters who have added luster to Ashe’s tennis legacy.
Venus, who is now battling serious health challenges which may force her into a premature retirement, has won Wimbledon five times, the U.S. Open two times, and a host of other tournaments. She has reported earnings of more than $35 million in the sport, and was very instrumental in convincing the tennis-powers-that-be to pay women tennis pros the same amount of prize money as the men, particularly in the major tournaments like Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the French Open and the U.S. Open. She is destined to be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame within the next few years.
Serena Willliams, who is currently the most dominant female tennis player on the pro tour, has won more major tournaments than any other woman still playing, and is a lock for the Tennis Hall of Fame herself. She has won at least five Wimbledons, two French opens, two Australian Opens, three U.S. Opens and is always the player everyone else fears to play. She has won more than 50 professional tennis tournaments and clearly intends to win many more before she is done. She has earned more than $50 million dollars in the sport, and looks to win more majors than Roger Federer, the top male tennis star of the previous 10 years.
In the wings and coming up strong are Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend. The African American presence on the woman’s side of tennis should remain very strong after the Williams sisters decide to hang up their rackets.
But where are the men? As in baseball, will Black men allow themselves to be marginalized again in the sport after the magnificent achievements of Arthur Ashe, James Blake and Malivai Washington, the latter another recent tennis phenom? Have basketball and football addicted our athletic prowess that much? Tennis is still a major money sport, and one can be singular, independent and not dependent on other teammates for one’s success (that’s not to say you don’t need a team of coaching staff, trainers etc.). Like golf, it’s just you, the ball, your racket and your across-the-net opponent. You don’t need a tackle, a blocker, a wide receiver or a linebacker, just your own will and preparation.
There are plenty of tennis spots, like Harvard Park and Dorsey High’s La Cienega Park, to play weekend warrior or get more serious. There are tons of tennis tournaments at all levels; there are all kinds of sponsorship opportunities; and tennis is now much more wide open to all levels of African American players, thanks to the Black giants of the game like Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters, Zina Garrison, and more.
It took African Americans decades to gain our present footing in tennis. We should not allow any obstacle to force us back out or to the margins. The same can be said of golf—what’s up after Tiger Woods?
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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