Editor’s Note: Harry Edwards, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” about Black activism on the playing field and in the athletic arena. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
If you watched Frances Tiafoe play at the US Open last week in hopes of seeing the next chapter in the evolution of a gifted tennis talent, then you were richly rewarded. But if you were looking for evidence of efforts by officials in the sport to ensure that there are more Tiafoes who follow in his footsteps, you may have to keep waiting.
Sunday’s US Open final saw Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz defeat Norwegian Casper Ruud in four sets. But as a scholar whose work has centered on Blacks in sport, I took a greater interest in Friday’s match between Alcaraz and Tiafoe, the first African American man to reach the semi-finals of the US Open tournament since my friend, the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, did it in 1972. Tiafoe lost to Alcaraz in a hard-fought battle, but his strong overall performance at the Open put the sports world on notice that he may be the next great American player to watch.
Now that Grand Slams are over and we can assess the year in tennis, it’s remarkable to consider that the 2022 US Open was bracketed by the achievements of two highly successful Black players, in what remains an overwhelmingly White sport.
In Serena Williams, the US Open provided a fitting tribune for a tennis legend winding down a historic career; In Tiafoe, he had a gifted young up-and-comer with all the promise in the world. Both players had to overcome economic hardship to find success in a sport with a history of racial exclusion, one not historically kind to Black players.
The story of Serena – trained as a child by her father, along with her sister Venus on the public courts in Compton, California – is well-known.
Tiafoe had an even more hard-scrabble introduction to tennis, which he learned to play on the same courts that his father – an immigrant from war torn Sierra Leone – helped build as a member of the construction crew. Later, his dad became a maintenance worker at the facility, affording Tiafoe access to the facilities, equipment and training he would need to blossom in the sport.
LeBron James tweeted words of encouragement to Tiafoe after his stunning fourth-round upset over tennis star Rafael Nadal. Former first lady Michelle Obama turned out to watch Friday’s thrilling semi-final that he ultimately lost to Alcaraz, as did NBA player Bradley Beal and a contingent of other supporters.
But Tiafoe’s saga should in no way be mistaken as a sign that the demographic profile of the sport, especially with respect to the men’s game, is changing. Historically, “Whites only” on the tennis courts didn’t refer only to the attire, as one sports writer put it.
Concerted change can take place in sport, if concerted efforts are taken to bring it about, and not enough has happened to change the demographic profile of tennis. That’s in sharp contrast to other popular sports.
Black athletes now comprise nearly three-quarters of NBA players, but during the first half of the 20th century – until 1951 – mainstream professional basketball was an all-White game. The same could be said for professional football and baseball, which fielded their first Black players of the modern era in 1946 and 1947, respectively.
Those team sports have an advantage, however, when it comes to diversifying that individual sports don’t have. Black players in previously all-White locker rooms became more preeminent at both the professional and the collegiate levels at a time of broader political and societal desegregation.
Once Black players began to participate in consequential numbers in team sports from which they previously had been excluded – they literally “changed the game,” bringing with them a culture-driven, athletic style of play learned in America’s urban centers.
And once that style of play took hold, professional basketball and football coaches, owners and collegiate coaches felt compelled to recruit more Black athletes, particularly in football at certain positions like running back and wide receiver, where African American players enjoyed a culture-driven “ advantage” in their athleticism and style of play.
Black players in these sports had what I call “transactional leverage”: their skills were in such high demand that the cost of excluding Black athletes from the locker room was eclipsed by the value of including them on college and professional teams.
You can see this same phenomenon most clearly today with the young, athletic, mobile Black quarterbacks who are changing the way that position is played. NFL coaches and scouts are always on the search for the next Patrick Mahomes or another Lamar Jackson as quarterback – formerly a position that was all but off-limits to African Americans.
Obviously, leaders of professional tennis have created programs to try to generate interest in communities of color. The United States Tennis Association built a network of junior programs, pioneered by Arthur Ashe in the 1960s to bring the game to underserved communities. Those kinds of efforts are great, as far as they go. The athletic experience at any level can be formative – even transformative – in the lives of young athletes.
But such experiences – no matter how sincere in purpose and how well-funded they might be – are never sufficient to assure broad access and opportunity at the highest levels of competition and achievement. That takes years of financial investment and intensive tutelage from a very young age, the kind of instruction that Tiafoe got on his home tennis court and Williams received from her father. The exposure to the game that the USTA is offering young players isn’t nearly sufficient to attain the same results.
Nor do such efforts completely counteract the long-established and deeply-rooted tradition of Black exclusion in the tennis culture, which cannot be overstated. It has impeded progressive change at every level of the sport.
There is no leveraged pressure on tennis sports associations or other gatekeeper administrative authority to make the game more accessible to Black players. And to be honest about it, the sport is defined in its very essence by a sort of country club elitism that is antithetical to greater inclusiveness. Or as one writer for Vice put it, Tennis remains “perhaps the last global event to remain staunchly white in its sensibilities and participants.”
Desegregation of the American locker rooms in the highest profile team sports didn’t happen out of a sense of morality or fairness. It didn’t happen because it was “the right thing to do.”
League officials running mainstream sports – often under political pressure because of broader societal change and by lobbying by the Black press and African American leaders – increasingly deemed it advantageous to allow Black players to routinely showcase their talents in previously “Whites-only” mainstream team sports .
By contrast, you have a genial individual like Tiafoe, who for all of his impressive on-court skills is swimming against the tide, and virtually alone, in tennis. In some ways it was his poverty – not privilege – that provided his unconventional path to the sport.
Many White tennis players say they grew up playing the sport; Tiafoe literally grew up on a tennis court, living for a time with his father in a spare office at the tennis facility his dad helped maintain. His is a one-of-a-kind situation, one that’s unlikely to be repeated.
There is, of course, a chicken-or-the-egg aspect to the problem of Blacks in tennis. There would be more Black champions if African Americans had greater access to tennis courts, particularly in urban areas, along with the appropriate training and equipment. And if the tennis world saw that more Black champions could emerge from such settings, perhaps they would do more to invest in bringing more opportunities to young players in those communities.
Could Tiafoe provide such a spark? He has said that he hopes he’ll be able to inspire other African Americans to take up the sport. “At the end of the day I love that because of Frances Tiafoe there’s a lot of people of color playing tennis. That’s obviously a goal for me. That’s why I’m out here trying pretty hard,” he told members of the press during his storied US Open run.
A laudable feeling, and maybe he’ll succeed. But everything I’ve learned from decades of studying the Black experience tells me that his breakthrough will not be enough to sweep away decades of institutional culture in a sport that has been historically stubborn to change.