It is impossible to quantify how many young Black girls have signed up for tennis lessons since the late 1990s when Serena and Venus Williams burst onto the scene under the guidance of their father, Richard Williams, or how many parents of athletic Black girls living in America, tried to follow his blueprint and repeat the Williams’s success.
The number is surely significant, though — enough that despite significant barriers to entry, two generations of top Black female players, including Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend and now Coco Gauff, already a Grand Slam finalist at 18 years old, have emerged.
Black American men have not had a Grand Slam champion to look up to since Arthur Ashe in the 1970s, and have had precious few billboard-worthy top Black players to admire. Maybe one day they will have Frances Tiafoe, who is Black and played one of the most compelling matches in U.S. Open history Friday night, coming up just short in the semifinals against Carlos Alcaraz of Spain. Even in the loss, Tiafoe, who is 24 years old, announced himself, last night and all week, as a potentially transformative star.
With the riches of far more accessible sports so obvious and ubiquitous, the people trying to make American men’s tennis better and more diverse have had a steep hill to climb to overcome that void that has long existed. Gauff’s younger brother, it’s worth noting, is a teenage baseball prospect.
“The little Black kid will always understand which sports star looks like their skin color,” said Alexandra Stevenson, a former pro who grew up playing with the Williams sisters. “It matters.”
Tiafoe has long had a sort of magnetic appeal, especially among people of color. At the 2020 U.S. Open, when no spectators were on the grounds, he played a second-round match against John Millman of Australia on Court 11 that turned into a five-set marathon.
As Tiafoe began to climb out of a two-sets-to-one deficit, perhaps 100 maintenance, food and security workers getting off their shifts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where people of color account for much of the staff, began to fill the empty stands. By the time Tiafoe finished off his comeback win, it was loud on Court 11, louder than any match during that eerily quiet Grand Slam.
Tiafoe’s origin story is fast becoming one of the great legends of tennis.
An impoverished son of immigrant parents from Sierra Leone discovers tennis and thrives because his father does maintenance at a local tennis center, putting him on the runway to the top of the sport. The story is perfectly positioned to serve as an inspiration to a generation of young Black boys. For the people who make a living searching for someone like Tiafoe, the story is both inspiring and terrifying.
They know how easily it could have gone another way, as it has for so many gifted young athletes, many of them Black, many of them poor, who never held a tennis racket until it was too late, if at all. Their physical gifts and dedication had turned them into teenage sensations in basketball or football, or any of the other lucrative athletic pursuits where they have long seen people who look like them at the pinnacle of the sport.
If Tiafoe’s father had worked in an office park instead of a tennis center, would the boy with all that speed and strength instead be suiting up for his N.F.L. team’s opening game Sunday? Would he be using his hands that maneuver a 10-ounce piece of carbon fiber just so to make a fuzzy yellow ball behave exactly how he wants it to?
“Finding that kid who has the athleticism and is a great competitor, and also has the sound foundation you need to have the opportunity to be able to grow, it isn’t easy to get them,” said Kent Kinnear, the director of men’s tennis at the U.S. Tennis Association.
Kinnear and his colleagues at the U.S.T.A. are desperate to reap the rewards of an American man of any background winning a Grand Slam singles title for the first time since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003. Private tennis coaches look across the parks where they work each day and see the ones that got away.
“John McEnroe always said, ‘Can you imagine if Michael Jordan had played tennis?’,” said Bill Adams, who runs the Bill Adams Global Tennis Academy in Miramar, Fla., and worked with a young Naomi Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese and identifies as a Black woman, a dozen years ago. “He was right.”
Sports like tennis and golf are often less accessible to Black children because of the high costs of training and equipment, and because the facilities to practice often aren’t available in the communities where Black children are most likely to live. Black families typically have less wealth than white families because of a history of racist policies related to assets like housing.
The U.S.T.A. has tried to set up a system that gives tennis a better chance to attract better athletes and more of them, especially from communities of color. That requires courts and also programs with equipment and high-quality coaching.
“So many of the success stories in our sport are happenstance,” said Louis Bolling, a former college player who is a community outreach manager with the U.S.T.A. “I was able to walk down the street, and someone was there to say here is a racket and T-shirt and a program where you can compete and learn.”
In Bolling’s program, the color of the T-shirt signified a player’s level. They got a new color as they moved up. Hundreds of kids across Philadelphia participated, and the best traveled across the city for tournaments. Bolling, who is Black, started playing tennis when he was 10 years old because his local baseball league folded, he said. By 15 he was traveling to Morocco to train and compete.
That is the environment that Asha Rolle is trying to create in the South Bronx at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning. Rolle, who is Black, grew up in Miami Shores, Fla., two blocks from a park with a tennis set of basketball courts where her brothers played. They told her about the tennis program behind the basketball courts and suggested she try it. Rolle received daily lessons for $20 a week. She ultimately rose to No. 82 in the world rankings. But she doesn’t just want brothers sending their sisters to her — she wants the boys to feel like they should be there, too.
“That kind of program is out there, but it’s spotty,” Rolle said.
The U.S.T.A. said it works with 250 nonprofit organizations that provide access to tennis for about 160,000 young players each year. The numbers suggest more children are at least giving the sport a try. The U.S.T.A. recently announced that youth participation — defined as playing the sport at least once a year — rose to 6.9 million in 2021, from 4.6 million in 2019. Participation among Black and Hispanic/Latino players grew to 5.5 million from 3.6 million during that time period.
Most top players commit when they are very young. Rolle said a boy would probably have to start playing seriously, with solid coaching, by the time he is 8 years old. The U.S.T.A. wants children to keep playing other sports to help develop their athleticism, but a singular focus on the game is often required by the early teens. But coaching techniques and quality varies.
Elliott Pettit, senior director of strategic development for the U.S.T.A., said the organization has tried to build a ladder that begins in elementary school by making tennis part of gym class. If a gym teacher agrees to connect with a local community tennis program, the school can receive a free package of equipment for an introductory version of the game — 30 rackets, 36 instructional balls, tape to use as the net and chalk for lines. It can be played in gyms, school hallways and cafeterias.
During the past five years 6,700 schools have participated. In the best case scenario, the gym teacher would point the best and most enthusiastic children to the community tennis center, which then can let the U.S.T.A. regional chapters know about any special talents so they can fund private coaching.
But what will make that talented child stick with the sport in a serious way? A star like Tiafoe, if he wins, can go a long way, a burden he is happy to carry.
“At the end of the day I love that because of Frances Tiafoe there is a lot of people of color playing tennis,” Tiafoe said Wednesday. “That’s why I’m out here trying pretty hard.”