MELBOURNE, Australia — In victory, Frances Tiafoe rips off his shirt and pumps his biceps, and wears an expression —part anger, sadness, triumph, and part unadulterated joy — that is as much a celebration, as an acknowledgement of presence: a talented black male athlete storming the citadels of tennis.
The era-defining excellence of the Williams sisters, beginning with Serena Williams’ first US Open victory over Martina Hingis in 1999, has transformed the women’s game to a certain extent but tennis remains largely out of bounds for black athletes in the US and also around the world. While black athletes dominate sports like soccer, basketball and athletics, there are only two black men in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) top 100 men’s ranking, showing how deprived tennis has been.
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When Tiafoe made it to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open earlier this week, he joined a handful of black male players to have made it that far in a Grand Slam: James Blake who never progressed beyond a quarter-final in an otherwise sterling career, MalVai Washington who lost the Wimbledon finals in 1996, and the legendary Arthur Ashe — the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to the US Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975).
This paucity in tennis not an accident, but a consequence of how the sport has been setup to keep out all marginalised groups. Till as recently as 1970, black Americans were not encouraged to play tennis and were kept away from major tournaments . Till the mid 1960s there was no way any black player could play in a major tournament run by the US Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). They could play in parallel tournaments run by the ATA or the Amateur Tennis Association. It is this lack of accessibility and embedded racial tensions in society that has made US tennis so deprived of black tennis players. In May 1951, for instance, there were only less than two dozen high school junior black players in the entire country. The numbers took a long time to rise due to institutional apathy, social tensions. Yet, US tennis and to a large extend world tennis remains deprived of black players.
Tiafoe’s journey to Melbourne began when his father, Constant, fled war-torn Sierra Leone for the United States in 1993, and found work as a daily-wage labourer with a construction crew contracted to build the US Tennis Association’s Junior Coaching Centre in Maryland.
Once the centre was built, Constant stayed on as a maintenance man. He kept the centre clean, maintaining the clay courts, and finagled free tennis lessons for his sons Frances and Franklin. Half a century ago, Arthur Ashe’s path to tennis was similar: his father was the caretaker of Brookfield, an 18 acre “Blacks Only” playfield that had one of the few tennis courts in Richmond, Virginia.
“A tennis-centred life was a dim prospect for a young black coming of age in the early 60s,” Raymond Arsenault writes in his recent biography Arthur Ashe: A Life. The book quotes Ashe’s recollection that entrenched racist attitudes had popularised the notion, amongst the sport’s administrators, that black athletes “lacked finesse, that they might be good runners or jumpers but could never make it in a game like tennis.”
In Melbourne, Tiafoe came into the tournament ranked 39th in the world. The american press had described him as the great hope for American men’s tennis since he was 15, when he won the Orange Bowl, one of the most prestigious junior tournaments previously won by stars like Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, Gabriela Sabatini, Bjorn Borg, and of course Arthur Ashe.
“I don’t even know what to say to you, man. It’s crazy. I don’t think any of this was going to happen,” Tiafoe told pressmen after Rafael Nadal halted his dream run in the quarters.“If you would have asked me during the off-season, you’re going to play Rafa in the quarterfinals on Rod Laver with Rod Laver watching, I probably would have laughed. It’s unbelievable.”
To reach the quarters Tiafoe displayed some power-packed tennis, starting with a straight set win against India’s Prajneesh Gunneswaran. His numbers during his run to the quarters were impressive: he dished out 56 aces, which he calls “serving canons”, and won 87% of his service games.
“When you are playing a guy that good you can’t even get some holding pressure on him, it’s tough.”
Tiafoe has the whiplash forehand and a venomous double-handed backhand. He walks on the tips of his foot with a spring in his stride, and has the stony elegance and swagger of an athlete who has come up the hard way.
His fourth round match against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov (ranked 20) was the assertion of both power and artistry — big booming forehands and subtle topspin backhands.
In the quarters though, he was hammered by 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, by Nadal.
“When you are playing a guy that good you can’t even get some holding pressure on him, it’s tough,” Tiafoe said after the match Nadal match. “My body was definitely hurting. I’m more or less happy to be done.”
“He has strong forehand,” Nadal said of Tiafoe. “It’s difficult to read his game sometimes. He can go to the net. He can sometimes slice. He can hit good backhands too…then its true that I played a very solid match.”
While the four major slams soak up the attention of most tennis watchers, the tennis world has been roiled by changes to the 118 year old Davis cup, a global, democratised inter-country tournament known for stirring wins by players from traditionally underrepresented countries. India for example has reached the Davis Cup final twice. The other two inter-country tournaments, the mixed doubles Hopmans Cup (by invitation only) and the Laver Cup (Europe Vs rest of the World) are largely exclusivist tournaments again showing the institutionalised bias in the game . The game is not interested in casting its net far and wide. Instead it is getting increasingly focussed on privileged nations as the new Davis Cup formatting shows. The ‘others’ can wait, or watch, or try the public park.
This year, the Davis Cup will be shortening its format to only 18 top teams after a promised $3 billion dollar investment from a fund fronted by Spain’s Barcelona football player Gerard Pique. The Laver Cup is partly owned by Roger Federer. None of these tournaments will for instance be staged in Asia or Africa anytime in the near future. For India especially the ‘taking away’ of the Davis Cup is a big loss both in terms of its chances in the tournament and of hosting some high powered games in the country. Tennis will become even more a cosy Euro-American club.
"I’m going for the big moments. I want the big moments. I just tell myself remember the work you did, the things you went through and keep going."
That is not what Arthur Ashe, the pioneer in making the game more egalitarian played and fought for. The Arthur Ashe court at the US Open now looks an empty symbol.
In his biography of Ashe, Arsenault writes, “For generations Ashe’s ancestors had lived behind an invisible wall of discrimination and prejudice, a barrier reinforced by custom, law, and a long legacy of fear and intimidation.
“Arthur Jr would become the first of his line to breach this barrier, primarily because he learnt to strike the white tennis ball better than just about anyone else. In the early 1950s, prior to the full flowering of the civil rights movement, no one but a clairvoyant could have foreseen tennis as a means of escape into the white world.”
Tiafoe has made that extremely difficult escape. He is here to stay for sure. He knows that. As he said in Melbourne “I’m going for the big moments. I want the big moments. I just tell myself remember the work you did, the things you went through and keep going.”
Let’s hope he keeps going. For Tiafoe’s march is against history too.