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Books | Sports

February 5, 2008

After Althea and Ashe

The tennis pioneers helped pave the way for the Williams sisters and James Blake. But elitism and racism persist in the sport.

Carl Bialik

Tennis is an individual sport, with today's top players surrounded by family, friends, employees and hangers-on off the court, then standing on their own on court. But this solitude can't insulate the sport and its players from broader social forces, Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-DeBose demonstrate in Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters. For the first half of this century, the white tennis world was largely successful in keeping blacks out, leading to the creation of the venerable American Tennis Association, which welcomed all comers. In recent decades, tennis has accepted, though not always welcomed, black players including champions such as Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters, and dozens more who have traveled around the world in relative obscurity.

Cecil Harris. Photo by Bwari Jolivette
"At the NHL All-Star Game, we used to hold our annual meeting of the mythical North American Black Hockey Writers Association in the men's room."

Cecil Harris. Photo by Bwari Jolivette

Despite rosy projections of the Williams sisters' diversifying impact, the sport's top ranks—and its umpiring crew—remains overwhelmingly white. Yet that is part of what made the topic so attractive to Harris, who was previously interviewed by Gelf for his book about blacks in hockey. "I have never subscribed to the notion that history should be written only by the winners," Harris tells Gelf. "I've always been fascinated by people who do things that defy conventional wisdom and succeed."

Harris spoke to Gelf by email about the player he wished he'd included in his book, why James Blake's opportunity may have passed, and why Serena Williams should prove she's as good a multitasker as she says she is. The interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity. You can hear Harris and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, February 7th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga didn't make it into your book. What's your take on him? What role has his race played in his career, and in the reaction of fans to him? Does he really look like Muhammad Ali, and is it racist to make that comparison?

Cecil Harris: I regret not including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the hardcover version of Charging the Net. When I spoke to a member of the French Tennis Federation at the 2006 U.S. Open, I was told that Tsonga had such severe back problems that he would likely retire from the sport. I knew about Tsonga. He is in the 2005 Association of Tennis Professionals (men's tennis) media guide, which I have, but he was dropped from the 2006 ATP guide because of health problems and inactivity. Faced with a December 1, 2006, deadline, I made the editorial decision not to mention a player whom I believed would not be in tennis when the book came out in July 2007. We will correct that in the paperback version. In retrospect, I should have mentioned that he won the 2003 U.S. Open juniors title but developed severe back problems that could prevent him from ever fulfilling his promise as a pro. Something like that would have covered my derrière in the hardcover edition.
Oh, well. Tsonga obviously was healthy enough to reach the 2008 Australian Open final. He plays an extremely physical game that could portend a shorter career. I certainly hope he doesn't suffer any more severe injuries, because his game is an enticing blend of speed, power, finesse, and athleticism. Nobody else plays quite like him. He started playing at eight in LeMans, France, but he has also played soccer, basketball, and handball. He's 6-2, 200 pounds, heavier and more muscular than the typical tennis pro. I think it was to Tsonga's advantage that he was born in Europe (to a Congolese man and a white Frenchwoman). Had he been born in the U.S., it's more likely that Tsonga would have gravitated to basketball, boxing, or football.
Tsonga feeds the Ali comparisons himself. He talks about how much Ali has inspired him, even though Tsonga was born in 1985 and Ali retired from boxing in 1980. Tsonga's father first told him about Ali, and he saw the documentary, When We Were Kings. The Tsonga-Ali comparisons really are out of control. If you watched ESPN's Aussie Open coverage, you heard fans chanting "A-li, A-li" when Tsonga hit a spectacular shot, which was often. Tsonga's father even punched the air with right hooks (he must be a southpaw) after his son won the first set in the final against Novak Djokovic. (Djokovic won in four sets.) Frankly, I don't see a young Ali when I look at Tsonga. But I don't consider the comparison racist in a "those people all look alike" sort of way. (Bill Clinton's maladroit attempt to compare Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson after Obama cleaned Hillary's clock in South Carolina bothered me much more.) Again, Tsonga himself does nothing to discourage the Ali comparisons. He's great for tennis, if he can stay healthy. We'll see.

GM: James Blake wrote your foreword. I've heard mixed things about him. Do you think in his private life, and in the locker room, he lives up to his sterling public image?

CH: Blake has been good to me in terms of agreeing to write the foreword and being accessible for interviews at the 2006 U.S. Open, the 2006 NASDAQ-100 Open (now the Sony Ericsson Open), a tennis club in midtown Manhattan where we talked, and over the phone. In his book, Break Point, fellow American pro Vince Spadea took Blake to task. Spadea said Blake isn't the gentleman he presents himself as being. Spadea's only example is a match they played several years ago in which Blake accused Spadea of stalling and told him so during the post-match handshake. Many players have accused Spadea of gamesmanship. Spadea himself told me at the 2006 U.S. Open that he sometimes finds it difficult to find another pro to practice with because he's not popular on the tour. Blake is quite popular, but obviously that does not make him perfect.
My main concern about Blake is that his window of opportunity appears to have closed. He's 28, and he still hasn't gone past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam event. Younger players like Djovokic, Richard Gasquet, David Ferrer, and obviously Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have passed him. It appears likely that Andy Murray and younger black players such as Tsonga and Gael Monfils will pass him, as well. Blake's record in five-set matches is abysmal. It was 0-9 when the book came out. [Editor's note: It's now 2-9.] That points to a lack of mental toughness. I like Blake personally, but I've seen him spit the bit (if I may use a Steinbrennerism) in too many big matches. With his strong serve and nuclear forehand, he should have reached a Grand Slam final by now, particularly the 2005 U.S. Open, when he led Andre Agassi two sets to love but lost in the quarters. Agassi went on to lose to Federer in the final. That should have been Blake's final.

GM: One of our recent Varsity Letters guests suggested that the gap between male and female athletes is much bigger than commonly thought, and cited as an example the lopsided scores when the Williams sisters played journeymen. What ranking could Serena, at her peak, have gotten on the men's tour?

CH: Serena was at her best in 2002 and 2003, when she held all four Grand Slam titles (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open, French Open) simultaneously. But the Serena of '02 and '03 would not have been ranked in the top 300 on the men's tour. Men hit too consistently hard and use too much slice and topspin—and disguise those shots too well—for a top woman player to handle. Venus and Serena were routed several years ago by journeymen players at a tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida, that seems to have a different corporate name every year (now it's the Sony Ericsson Open). [Editor's note: It also happened at the 1998 Australian Open.]
That's not a big deal to me because women's sports are different from men's sports and women do not need to compete against men to validate their greatness. Serena and Venus both are future Hall of Famers because of their considerable achievements in their sport. Neither has to defeat a man to prove anything. The problem was, early in the Williams sisters' careers, their loose-lipped father bragged that his daughters could beat top male players. V & S, not knowing any better, believed their dad and repeated the boast at some news conferences. I have interviewed both sisters (in a previous life I served as managing editor of williamssisters.com). Believe me, neither sister would say a word today about wanting to play against a man. It's simply not necessary.
I don't know who your guest was, but he might want to take a look at how the gap is closing between the male world record-holder in the marathon and the female world record-holder. And remember, women have been running the marathon only since the 1970s. Also, girls today swim much faster times than Mark Spitz did to win his seven Olympic gold medals, and they run faster times than previous male gold-medal sprinters.
And I am not sure if your guest could out-box Laila Ali. What do you think?

"When I visited Paris for the French Open in 2004 more white Parisians were critical of me because they did not like George W. Bush. I heard, 'How could your president do this?' "
GM: I doubt it. When we talked about your hockey book, I asked about your own hockey playing. How's your tennis game? And did you play growing up?

CH: My tennis game has suffered since I left Raleigh in 2000. (I covered the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes from 1998-2000 for The News & Observer in Raleigh.) While growing up in Brooklyn, I played recreational tennis, usually in Prospect Park. Reading about Arthur Ashe in newspapers in the early 1970s got me interested in tennis. He wasn't the only black player in the pros, but he was the only black champion. I still remember that Saturday afternoon in July when I waited for NBC's coverage of the Baseball Game of the Week to end so I could watch the tape of the 1975 Wimbledon final between Ashe and then-World No. 1 Jimmy Connors. In the pre-ESPN, pre-internet days, it was easier to avoid learning the outcome of an already contested sports event. I didn't know who won the match until about 40 minutes into the coverage. You knew NBC's coverage would run from 5:00-6:30, and it had already shown Ashe winning the first two sets. Anyone of reasonable intelligence could figure out that he won the match. It was anticlimactic yet thrilling to see a black man win tennis's most prestigious tournament. Arthur Ashe made me a tennis fan for life.

GM: What was the process of working with a co-author like? How did you divvy up the work?

CH: My co-author, Larryette Kyle-DeBose, helped with the research, interviews, and editing. She's a player-coach in the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, which is the largest recreational tennis league in the country, with some 80,000 dues-paying members. She and I met at a seminar in Los Angeles in 2005 and decided to collaborate on a tennis book. She was particularly helpful in finding people with knowledge of the American Tennis Association (ATA). Established in 1916, the ATA is the oldest black-led sports association in the world. Larryette and I support the ATA's efforts to get Dr. R. Walter Johnson, who was so instrumental in the development of Ashe and Althea Gibson, into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Williams sisters

The Williams sisters are gifted multi-taskers.

GM: The New York Times review questioned your inclusion of aborigines. How do you define "black"? Is racial bias a bigger problem outside the US than inside our borders, or the reverse?

CH: Someone with roots and physical characteristics that can be clearly traced to Africa is in my view black. Hence, the Australian aborigines, from whom tennis Hall of Famer Evonne Goolagong derives, are black. Charging the Net describes how Goolagong had an epiphany after her mother's death and has embraced her aborigine roots ever since. She had been in denial before.
I don't travel abroad nearly as often as pro athletes, but when I visited Paris for the French Open in 2004 more white Parisians were critical of me because they did not like George W. Bush. I heard, "How could your president do this?" or, "What is wrong with your president?" Had I known that would happen, I would have worn a T-shirt that read, "I DID NOT VOTE FOR BUSH."
I never felt uncomfortable as a black man at the French Open or at Wimbledon in 2002.
Black soccer players in Europe have been subjected to racial slurs and monkey chants, as has been documented in numerous articles and on a segment of HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Yet black track-and-field stars are more popular abroad than in the U.S.
Anson Carter, who wrote the foreword for my first book, Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey, had bananas thrown at him twice during an exhibition game in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2005. But he is playing pro hockey now in Switzerland and seems to like it.
I don't know if racial bias is a bigger problem abroad than it is here, but it's a problem.
I am of the opinion that a President Obama would go a long way toward improving the world's perception of America and, more specifically, African Americans. In Charging the Net, I quote the father of black tennis pro Scoville Jenkins about the way his son is perceived abroad: whites expect him to use drugs, carry a gun, and spew profanity. As African Americans, we are not who films and television and hip-hop DVDs say we are.

GM: You make the point that the sport of tennis hasn't been especially welcoming to blacks. But isn't tennis a game for loners, and often unfriendly to newcomers? Don't most players hang with their entourage, rather than each other, anyway?

CH: There really were no entourages in tennis prior to the 1980s. The top players routinely hung out together and traveled together. Ashe routinely traveled with white players in his day. That changed when big money came into the sport, and the tennis agent became more prevalent. Top players today spend more time with agents, coaches, hitting partners, and personal trainers than with other players. As I document in the book, families that provided housing for top junior players at tournaments would often withdraw that courtesy if the player in question was black. That has nothing to do with whether the player is an extrovert or an introvert. That is all about race.
Another thing that I'm proud to have exposed in the book is the systematic exclusion of black umpires from the biggest matches. In Chapter 9, "You niggers gotta get off the court," I reveal that no African American has officiated a Grand Slam singles final, for men or women, since 1993. Two prominent black officials sued the establishment to shine a light on this disgraceful situation, but it still has not been corrected. How qualified does one have to be to officiate a tennis match? An African American has more of an opportunity these days to split an atom than to sit in a high chair and say, "Advantage Sharapova."

GM: Did you try to track down Irina Spirlea, who famously bumped Venus Williams at a match? Is it possible she didn't like Venus for who she is, irrespective of her skin color?

CH: I tried to track down Spirlea. I was told she was in Romania, but I did not get a response from the Romanian tennis federation. Spirlea personalized her attack on Venus. Spirlea had been critical of her in news conferences prior to their 1997 U.S. Open semifinal match. I believe her animus toward Venus was racially motivated. Pam Shriver, Venus's mentor in a WTA Tour program, agrees. I'm fairly certain that Spirlea would not have admitted to that anyway, because it's not politically correct to do so.

"Arthur Ashe did not have to share his winnings with young black players. This is not the Czech federation."

GM: What draws you to examine the role of blacks in sports where they still don't represent a major percentage of the world's best? Do you have other projects planned in this vein?

CH: I have never subscribed to the notion that history should be written only by the winners. I've always been fascinated by people who do things that defy conventional wisdom and succeed. I'm that sort of person myself. When I served as New York Yankees beat writer for Gannett (1995-98), I was one of only four African-American baseball beat writers in North America. Strange but true. When I served as a National Hockey League beat writer, I was one of only three such black men in North America. At the NHL All-Star Game, we used to hold our annual meeting of the mythical North American Black Hockey Writers Association in the men's room. I admire the courage of athletes such as Althea Gibson, who used to have to change clothes in the car before entering an exclusive club to whip some white woman's ass in a tennis tournament. Not enough people realize that she was the first African-American Grand Slam champion a full decade before Arthur Ashe.
The U.S. Open honored Gibson posthumously on opening night of the 2007 tournament, but the U.S. Tennis Association still has not named anything of significance after her: not a court, not a trophy, nothing. I write books like Charging the Net to tell the unvarnished truth about athletes like Gibson, and I hope people will be inspired by their examples.
Eventually, I will complete a book on the inordinate number of African-American boys who pursue basketball as a means to fame and fortune at the expense of education and mental and spiritual development. For every LeBron James, who goes from the projects as a schoolboy to uncommon fame as a young man, there are one hundred Lenny Cookes.

GM: Did Ashe do enough with his fame, influence, and winnings to help young black players? Have the Williams sisters?

CH: Arthur Ashe did plenty for young black players, mostly by inspiring them and setting a good example on how to behave, how to prepare for matches and how to live a meaningful life. He did not have to share his winnings with young black players. This is not the Czech federation.
In Charging the Net, I quote James Blake and black former pros MaliVai Washington, Kim Sands, Rodney Harmon (currently the director of men's tennis for the USTA), and Traci Green (now the women's coach at Harvard; she coached at Temple when I interviewed her) on how much Ashe did for them. Harmon said he owes his post-tennis career to Ashe. Luke Jensen also told me Ashe convinced him to go to college instead of turning pro after high school.
I also quote black former pros Juan Farrow and Arthur Carrington, who believe Ashe should have done more, and black former pro Phil Williamson (a former Ivy League Player of the Year at Columbia), who thought Ashe should have given him more advice.
I believe Ashe devoted enough time to the people and causes that mattered to him.
Would it be magnanimous of the Williams sisters to use their money to support black players who are struggling to achieve a high-enough ranking to stay on tour? Sure. But I don't know if they aren't doing that behind the scenes. I found no evidence, but that doesn't mean it's not happening.
As I wrote in Charging the Net, Sands received money from former world heavyweight champ Leon Spinks when she really needed it. (I'll bet Spinks could use that money now.)
Do the Williams sisters have to use their money to financially support black players on the way up? No. I believe the work ethic shown by their sisters to reach the summit in tennis provides inspiration enough. I have learned since Charging the Net debuted that the Williams sisters have lent their name and resources to a tennis training center in the Los Angeles area. That information will be in the paperback version, whenever it debuts.

"For every LeBron James, who goes from the projects as a schoolboy to uncommon fame as a young man, there are one hundred Lenny Cookes."
GM: It seems like it'd be harder to discriminate against black players in tennis once they get on the court, because the rules of the game are fairly straightforward. Do you think officiating has been biased against certain players?

CH: I agree that it's hard to discriminate against a player once a match begins because the rules of tennis are so cut-and-dried. Also, players on the show courts at Grand Slam events can use a video-replay system to challenge calls. In Charging the Net, I call that the Serena Rule.
I think Mariana Alves, the chair umpire who made unconscionably bad overrules that cost Serena in her 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinal-round match against Jennifer Capriati, was just inept, not racially biased. I see no evidence that officials are biased against certain players. In Chapter 9, black former umpire Cecil Hollins points out that umpires must submit to tournament officials a list of players with whom they have had run-ins, so those umpires are no longer assigned to those players' matches.

GM: Has Serena Williams followed through on her plan to build a school in Senegal?

CH: Not yet. I hope she will suspend her blogging for a while and get to it. President Wade gave her the land. Actually, if Serena is as great at multitasking as she claims to be in the Hewlett-Packard commercials, then she can blog, act, date a hunk, design clothes, create cosmetics, play tennis, date another hunk, & build a school in Senegal at the same time.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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