Sports of The Times
To Put More Blacks In the Pipeline, Own the Pipeline
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Published: September 3, 2010
Richard Williams strolled across the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Wednesday afternoon. Ever the recognizable figure, he was greeted by men and women, young and old. Some just wanted to say hello, others asked to have their picture taken with him, and others simply wanted to offer his daughters good luck.
Richard Williams is an intriguing sports figure, and the story of how his daughters Venus and Serena became defining presences in women’s tennis continues to be one of the great stories in contemporary American sports.
Increasingly, the question has been raised: Why, after all these years, hasn’t another African-American tennis star been identified and developed?
Tennis has had well-documented difficulties in establishing and maintaining an African-American presence in its championship pipeline. Critics point out that the cost of the journey is exorbitant. But Williams said the problem went beyond money.
“You can only be good if you have a system behind you and not ahead of you, blocking you from getting there,” he said. “Institutions that could help blacks refuse. I think they drive blacks away from tennis.”
He said there would not be a significant black presence in tennis until African-Americans built and ran their own tennis academies. The solution, he said, is self-sufficiency. His vision is to build an academy, perhaps in Texas, that would house a resort and a school.
“You have to establish your own,” he said, referring to a black tennis academy. “If you can’t establish your own, this system has shown you that it is not going to accept you in their house. If I had black people who wanted to work with me and we independently could set up something, we could create black tennis players. Other than that, it’ll never happen.”
The idea of a establishing a well-financed African-American tennis academy is overdue. The concept will certainly elicit cries of resegregation and laments of “I thought we were beyond this.” But when you look at it, you realize we’re really not.
“It’s not that they dislike you,” Williams said. “They just don’t want another Venus or Serena showing up.”
Chris Widmaier, the managing director of corporate communications for the United States Tennis Association, disagreed. “We believe the U.S.T.A. has built a system that strives for inclusion at every economic background,” he said. “Our goal is to support elite players; there are no barriers to entry into those sports.”
Widmaier pointed to initiatives to bring tennis instruction to underserved populations, like ones led by Patrick McEnroe, the association’s general manager of player development. “Black, white, purple, yellow, we want to identify and support elite players,” Widmaier said.
As for Richard Williams’s contention that African-Americans must nurture their own champions, Widmaier said: “He raises complex issues. I’m not a cultural sociologist. I just know that would not be our approach.”
While the introduction of black firsts led to an explosion of talented players in other sports, the championship gap between Althea Gibson’s last title in a major in 1958 and the Williams sisters is enormous, and there has not been a male African-American Grand Slam champion since Arthur Ashe in 1975. Clearly there needs to be another model.
African-Americans have been playing tennis since the last part of the 19th century, not long after the modern game originated. They had their own clubs and their own champions, Gibson among them. These clubs were a response to a legacy of racism — African-Americans being denied access to exclusive clubs, tournaments and training.
Beyond money, Williams says the tennis environment — what he calls the system — has not been welcoming to African-Americans. He cites his experiences with his daughters.
“I’ve seen a lot of black kids come up to me and say, ‘I would never want to play tennis after what I see them say to you, Mr. Williams,’ ” Williams said. “I’ve seen black girls that quit, who wouldn’t play tennis for fear of what would happen to them.”
Perhaps, it was suggested, Williams suffered from being a pioneer, and the next black star would have an easier time. He doesn’t think so. The resistance is deeply rooted, he said.
“When they tried to pick on me and Venus and Serena, they weren’t picking at them, in all reality,” Williams said. “They were picking at other blacks, saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you if you come here, so keep your butts away.’ They aren’t doing this to hurt us, they do it to discourage little black girls and black boys so they won’t take over tennis like they did football and basketball and baseball.”
There is an abundance of talent throughout the United States just waiting to be developed. Their families may not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in the process, but Richard Williams demonstrated that you don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I believe girls and boys can be better than Venus and Serena,” Williams said. “I really believe that with all my heart.”
What you need is care, courage, dedication and love.
Those qualities, more often than not, are homegrown.Great Ocean Road Day ToursBrazil Carnival