Baselines and Battlelines: Part Two

By Jay Stewart
Updated: September 5, 2007

WRITER’S NOTE: Welcome back for part two of our look back at Althea Gibson and her legacy. Part one examined Althea herself, and what she had to deal with. Part two will look at what has changed for blacks in top-level (now professional) tennis, and what hasn’t. As in the previous part, any references to “we” and “our” refers to the author (Jay Stewart) and his crew, and not to the owners of this website. Any speculations are those of the authors, and not necessarily indicative of the opinions of this website. Now, onward.

TODAY: What Still Needs To Be Changed.

NEW YORK — Althea Gibson was the first black player in top-level tennis, and as any “first”, was subject to immense pressure. If someone of the same background as the established majority tried and failed, it would merely be viewed as she couldn’t do it. But if someone from a previously unrepresented minority tries and fails, it’s touted as proof that “they” can’t do it, and used as justification for further discrimination.

But succeed she did, and opened the door for other black players to follow. But, due to a variety of factors, from economic to discriminatory, there wasn’t a large wave of black players immediately following Althea. In the 60′s, we saw two of significance — Bonnie Dayle Logan, who became the first African-American permitted to play in a tourney in South Africa, and of course, Arthur Ashe.

Arthur took things a step further from Althea, quietly establishing himself as a top tennis star, and then using that platform to speak out on social issues. Needless to say, that did not sit well with the Powers That Be. But since Arthur had established himself, any retaliation would clearly have been seen as attempts at censure.

So, as expected, there was initially only a trickle of black players following Althea. But soon, on the early WTA Tour, there was a quartet of African-Americans; Logan, Ann Koger, Bessie Stockard, and Sylvia Hooks. Unfortunately, this was also around the time the USTA/WTA feud settled, with the USTA taking over the US tournaments.

The prize money distribution was heavily slanted toward the later rounds, and players struggling to gain a foothold in the sport, including the aforementioned quartet, were forced from the game by economics.

//<![CDATA[ u003cbr>Fortunately, things did not end with those four, and by the end of the 70's, there began a steady stream of African-American players on the women's tour which continues to this day. The men's tour hasn't seen as many black players, but with the appeal of the Williams sisters drawing fans and players to the sport, that could soon change, if they are given the opportunity.u003cbr>u003cbr>But that's the key. Will they be given the opportunity? The USTA has,  and continues to do, many things to retard the progress of blacks. Zina Garrison touched on some of it in her biography. Not only did she expose the sham of the USTA's "minority development" programs, which they undertake every few years largely for P.R. purposes, with nothing actually done to develop players, she also told of some of the roadblocks she, and subsequent players, faced. Zina told how she won the Wimbledon juniors, and reached #2 in the world junior rankings. Then, when the US Open juniors came around, she was put on an "alternate" list, and not directly in. She said the USTA did the same things to others, such as Chanda Rubin. Zina also mentioned how the USTA used to award a main draw wildcard to the winner of the ATA championships, but stopped after the Open era, and significant first-round prize money, came along.u003cbr>u003cbr>We have learned, from multiple sources, of other shenanigans. In the player development system, blacks are usually forced to play any preliminary rounds, and then play the next round the same day, often without the prescribed minimum amount of rest in between. When players call their own lines, USTA officials often browbeat blacks into changing their calls. There have been reports of USTA officials actually giving coaching advice to the opponents of black players during the matches. Then there is the old standard of phantom footfaults. We were told of a USTA official who openly boasted of doing some of these things, and who was reported on several occasions, yet she was never reprimanded.”,1] ); //–> //]]> Fortunately, things did not end with those four, and by the end of the 70′s, there began a steady stream of African-American players on the women’s tour which continues to this day.

The men’s tour hasn’t seen as many black players, but with the appeal of the Williams sisters drawing fans and players to the sport, that could soon change, if they are given the opportunity.

But that’s the key. Will they be given the opportunity? The USTA has, and continues to do, many things to retard the progress of blacks. Zina Garrison touched on some of it in her biography. Not only did she expose the sham of the USTA’s “minority development” programs, which they undertake every few years largely for P.R. purposes, with nothing actually done to develop players, she also told of some of the roadblocks she, and subsequent players, faced. Zina told how she won the Wimbledon juniors, and reached No. 2 in the world junior rankings.

Then, when the U.S. Open juniors came around, she was put on an “alternate” list, and not directly in. She said the USTA did the same things to others, such as Chanda Rubin. Zina also mentioned how the USTA used to award a main draw wildcard to the winner of the ATA championships, but stopped after the Open era, and significant first-round prize money, came along.

We have learned, from multiple sources, of other shenanigans. In the player development system, blacks are usually forced to play any preliminary rounds, and then play the next round the same day, often without the prescribed minimum amount of rest in between. When players call their own lines, USTA officials often browbeat blacks into changing their calls.

There have been reports of USTA officials actually giving coaching advice to the opponents of black players during the matches. Then there is the old standard of phantom footfaults. We were told of a USTA official who openly boasted of doing some of these things, and who was reported on several occasions, yet she was never reprimanded.

//<![CDATA[ u003cbr>Keep in mind that the USTA had to be forced, by a recent court decision, to allow minority chair umpires to work the big men's matches (semis and finals). And then there is the issue of rankings manipulation. Good results by black players are added later, so as to deprive them of higher seedings or tournament entries. We've heard that this is actually being addressed. But when we contacted the USTA about these issues, we received no response.u003cbr>u003cbr>In part one, we mentioned how some tried to diminish Althea's achievements. That trend continues to this day. No sooner had Serena and Venus Williams reached #'s 1 & 2 in the world, than the tennis media began criticizing the quality of the tour. The not-so-subtle message the media was sending is that they feel that's the only way that two black players could reach the top– if the tour was weak. It couldn't possibly have been because these players were great.u003cbr>u003cbr>To further that notion, the Williamses themselves were criticized. They employ the classic corner-to-corner point construction that many great champions have done over the years, from Wills to Connolly to Connors to Agassi to Seles. It's very direct and very effective when properly executed. You make your opponent do more running, so as to exhaust their energy sooner than yours. You keep them on the run, and in a defensive position, so it's harder for them to hit a good shot, and easier for you. And you open up the court for easier winners. Yet, when the Williamses do it, it's labeled "mindless ball-bashing". u003cbr>u003cbr>This is a running theme for black players in the tennis media- the idea that black players are stupid. Couple this with how blacks are referred to as "athletic", almost to the exclusion of all else, and we have a portrait. According to the tennis media, black players don't succeed because they are intelligent or work hard, it's by dint of winning the genetic lottery.u003cbr>u003cbr>But that's just the tip of the iceberg. No look at the treatment of black players in the tennis media would be complete without examining the Indian Wells incident of 2001. What happened here was one of the biggest disgraces in tennis history. It gave the sport, no pun intended, a black eye. Let's review the facts.”,1] ); //–> //]]> Keep in mind that the USTA had to be forced, by a recent court decision, to allow minority chair umpires to work the big men’s matches (semis and finals). And then there is the issue of rankings manipulation. Good results by black players are added later, so as to deprive them of higher seedings or tournament entries. We’ve heard that this is actually being addressed. But when we contacted the USTA about these issues, we received no response.

In part one, we mentioned how some tried to diminish Althea’s achievements. That trend continues to this day. No sooner had Serena and Venus Williams reached No. 1 & 2 in the world, than the tennis media began criticizing the quality of the tour. The not-so-subtle message the media was sending is that they feel that’s the only way that two black players could reach the top — if the tour was weak. It couldn’t possibly have been because these players were great.

To further that notion, the Williamses themselves were criticized. They employ the classic corner-to-corner point construction that many great champions have done over the years, from Wills to Connolly to Connors to Agassi to Seles. It’s very direct and very effective when properly executed.

You make your opponent do more running, so as to exhaust their energy sooner than yours. You keep them on the run, and in a defensive position, so it’s harder for them to hit a good shot, and easier for you. And you open up the court for easier winners. Yet, when the Williamses do it, it’s labeled “mindless ball-bashing”.

This is a running theme for black players in the tennis media- the idea that black players are stupid. Couple this with how blacks are referred to as “athletic”, almost to the exclusion of all else, and we have a portrait. According to the tennis media, black players don’t succeed because they are intelligent or work hard, it’s by dint of winning the genetic lottery.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No look at the treatment of black players in the tennis media would be complete without examining the Indian Wells incident of 2001. What happened here was one of the biggest disgraces in tennis history. It gave the sport, no pun intended, a black eye. Let’s review the facts.

//<![CDATA[ u003cbr>Venus and Serena were to play in the semis. After Venus' knee failed a basic functionality test, she withdrew. Venus had been nursing the injury all week, and even had her knee wrapped for her round of 16 match. She was asked if that was why she wasn't playing doubles. Her quarterfinal victim said Venus looked like she was injured. These are all documented in interview transcripts at ASAPsports. So, it's pretty straightforward. An unfortunate occurrence, but nothing out of the ordinary. What happened next was.u003cbr>u003cbr>There was a tremendous outcry from the tennis media. They claimed Venus withdrew to benefit Serena's ranking, even though, had Venus played so much as a single point, Serena would have gained 66 quality points and another spot in the rankings. They claimed Venus had "shown no sign" of the injury previously, which is an outright lie. To support their claim, many said that Venus was playing again "less than a week later", which is another falsehood. Venus withdrew on a Thursday night. She next played the Saturday of the following week– 9 days later. When you deliberately print false information in order to create a negative impression, that's called "libel" (or defamation in other countries). That would seem to be the single most serious ethics violation a journalist could commit. We contacted the co-Presidents of the International Tennis Writers Association, Matthew Cronin and Eleanor Preston, and asked if any of the writers in question had been disciplined or removed from the organization. They have not responded.u003cbr>u003cbr>Shortly after Venus withdrew, Pete Sampras was asked about it in a post-match press conference. He sarcastically commented about how Venus' tendonitis "just flared up" while rolling his eyes in disbelief. This is the same Sampras who had previously said of Venus, "she doesn't even know where her serve is going". What do you call someone who basically says that one of the most prominent African-American players of all time is a liar and stupid? If you're the tennis media, you call him "classy". Pete's not alone. One of the Rochus brothers said Serena "looks like a horse". Comparing blacks to animals, that's old school right there. Neither Sampras nor Rochus were ever reprimanded by the ATP tour for their comments.”,1] ); //–> //]]> Venus and Serena were to play in the semis. After Venus’ knee failed a basic functionality test, she withdrew. Venus had been nursing the injury all week, and even had her knee wrapped for her round of 16 match. She was asked if that was why she wasn’t playing doubles.

Her quarterfinal victim said Venus looked like she was injured. These are all documented in interview transcripts at ASAP Sports. So, it’s pretty straightforward. An unfortunate occurrence, but nothing out of the ordinary. What happened next was.

There was a tremendous outcry from the tennis media. They claimed Venus withdrew to benefit Serena’s ranking, even though, had Venus played so much as a single point, Serena would have gained 66 quality points and another spot in the rankings. They claimed Venus had “shown no sign” of the injury previously, which is an outright lie. To support their claim, many said that Venus was playing again “less than a week later”, which is another falsehood. Venus withdrew on a Thursday night. She next played the Saturday of the following week — 9 days later.

When you deliberately print false information in order to create a negative impression, that’s called “libel” (or defamation in other countries). That would seem to be the single most serious ethics violation a journalist could commit. We contacted the co-Presidents of the International Tennis Writers Association, Matthew Cronin and Eleanor Preston, and asked if any of the writers in question had been disciplined or removed from the organization. They have not responded.

Shortly after Venus withdrew, Pete Sampras was asked about it in a post-match press conference. He sarcastically commented about how Venus’ tendonitis “just flared up” while rolling his eyes in disbelief. This is the same Sampras who had previously said of Venus, “she doesn’t even know where her serve is going”.

What do you call someone who basically says that one of the most prominent African-American players of all time is a liar and stupid? If you’re the tennis media, you call him “classy”. Pete’s not alone. One of the Rochus brothers said Serena “looks like a horse”. Comparing blacks to animals, that’s old school right there. Neither Sampras nor Rochus were ever reprimanded by the ATP tour for their comments.

//<![CDATA[ u003cbr>Things didn't end with that aborted semifinal. During the final, a large part of the crowd, perhaps spurred on by the media smear campaign, or perhaps using it as cover to drop their veneer of civility, showered Serena with boos and, according to some in the stands, racial epithets. Either of the tournament's promoters, Charlie Pasarell or Ray Moore could have stopped this in its tracks by grabbing a microphone and telling the crowd to behave or be evicted. Yet they stood by, judging the Williamses guilty of something by their inaction. To date, neither Pasarell nor Moore has apologized for not stepping in. Emails to their media office asking why have gone unanswered.u003cbr>u003cbr>It's not just the traditional tennis media that have spread untruths about the Williamses. When Venus won Wimbledon in 2005, she jumped up and down with glee. Then, after going to the net and shaking hands with Lindsay, the players went over to their chairs, and Venus began celebrating again. Yet the Tennis-X website claimed that Venus jumped up and down right "in front of" Lindsay, suggesting that Venus was rubbing it in. Close attention to a replay of the match confirmed this never happened. So we (you guessed it) emailed them to ask why they misrepresented the events. Again, no response. (Notice a pattern? When someone is caught doing something they can't come up with an alternate explanation for, they go silent.)u003cbr>u003cbr>Venus and Serena aren't the only black players being mistreated by the tennis media. USA Network, which covers the US Open, has a long history of not showing live coverage of any black women not named Williams. Players who have been in the top 50, like Perry, Jackson, and Washington, are passed over, no matter how close their matches. But USA will show white journeymen who have never been in the top 50. Even Chanda Rubin, who has multiple stints in the top 10, never gets live coverage unless she plays a top seed. A few years ago, Rubin played THE scheduled women's night match, and USA never showed a single second of it. Even last year's match vs Vaidisova only got shown on tape due to the heavy rain washing out live matchplay.”,1] ); //–> //]]> Things didn’t end with that aborted semifinal. During the final, a large part of the crowd, perhaps spurred on by the media smear campaign, or perhaps using it as cover to drop their veneer of civility, showered Serena with boos and, according to some in the stands, racial epithets.

Either of the tournament’s promoters, Charlie Pasarell or Ray Moore could have stopped this in its tracks by grabbing a microphone and telling the crowd to behave or be evicted. Yet they stood by, judging the Williamses guilty of something by their inaction. To date, neither Pasarell nor Moore has apologized for not stepping in. E-mails to their media office asking why have gone unanswered.

It’s not just the traditional tennis media that have spread untruths about the Williamses. When Venus won Wimbledon in 2005, she jumped up and down with glee. Then, after going to the net and shaking hands with Lindsay, the players went over to their chairs, and Venus began celebrating again. Yet the Tennis-X website claimed that Venus jumped up and down right “in front of” Lindsay, suggesting that Venus was rubbing it in.

Close attention to a replay of the match confirmed this never happened. So we (you guessed it) e-mailed them to ask why they misrepresented the events. Again, no response. (Notice a pattern? When someone is caught doing something they can’t come up with an alternate explanation for, they go silent.) Venus and Serena aren’t the only black players being mistreated by the tennis media. USA Network, which covers the U.S. Open, has a long history of not showing live coverage of any black women not named Williams. Players who have been in the top 50, like Perry, Jackson, and Washington, are passed over, no matter how close their matches. But USA will show white journeymen who have never been in the top 50.

Even Chanda Rubin, who has multiple stints in the top 10, never gets live coverage unless she plays a top seed. A few years ago, Rubin played THE scheduled women’s night match, and USA never showed a single second of it. Even last year’s match vs Vaidisova only got shown on tape due to the heavy rain washing out live match play.

//<![CDATA[ u003cbr>If you look at the makeup of USA's announcing crew, you'll notice that all of them are white, with one token female. This includes Ted Robinson, who, just the other night, tried to suggest that Serena engaged in gamesmanship at Wimbledon when he misrepresented the story of the bathroom break request. Ted said Serena asked for a break before Hantuchova's serve, was denied, then was told she could go before her own serve, didn't go, then asked again before Hantuchova's next service game. He finished with an accusatorial "oops" as if to say "caught you Serena" and that she was trying to break Hantuchova's momentum with cheap tricks. What Ted omitted was that there was a changeover before each Hantuchova service, which was when the old rule said you had to go. That's why Serena asked. When told between games she could go, Serena replied to the order of "okay, I'll go on the next changeover". And Serena was in control of the 3rd set, so any momentum was hers.u003cbr>u003cbr>And if Ted wasn't bad enough, USA also added Jim Courier who, long after most of the tennis media was forced to admit there was no substance to match-fixing allegations against the Williamses, said he was "still suspicious". Yet another email (several, actually) went out to USA asking why they employed these guys, and why, with 5 African-American current or former WTA players having broadcast experience, none were hired. (ESPN was asked this last question also.) Keeping the perfect record intact, there was no response.u003cbr>u003cbr>Then we have the tennis media bashing Serena in Australia for not working hard in the offseason, even though, when pressed, they had to admit none of them knew exactly what work she was or wasn't doing. Yet they automatically assume the negative. And I'm sure you've heard both Williamses blasted for lack of commitment to the game, and compared unfavorably to other players like Justine Henin, who was used as an example of the dedicated player. Well here's some things they won't tell you. The US Open is Justine's 11th tourney of the year. It's Venus' 10th. Venus also represented her country in Fed Cup on two occasions this year, versus none for Justine. Plus Venus played TeamTennis. Overall, Venus played more events, more matches, and doubles to boot. If you look at the last 4 seasons, 2003-07, Venus has played more tournaments outright than Justine, and made more Fed Cup appearances (6 vs 2), despite only playing 6 tourneys in a injury-marred 2006. If you consider Justine dedicated (and we do as well), then you also have to say the same for Venus.”,1] ); //–> //]]> If you look at the makeup of USA’s announcing crew, you’ll notice that all of them are white, with one token female. This includes Ted Robinson, who, just the other night, tried to suggest that Serena engaged in gamesmanship at Wimbledon when he misrepresented the story of the bathroom break request. Ted said Serena asked for a break before Hantuchova’s serve, was denied, then was told she could go before her own serve, didn’t go, then asked again before Hantuchova’s next service game.

He finished with an accusatorial “oops” as if to say “caught you Serena” and that she was trying to break Hantuchova’s momentum with cheap tricks. What Ted omitted was that there was a changeover before each Hantuchova service, which was when the old rule said you had to go. That’s why Serena asked. When told between games she could go, Serena replied to the order of “okay, I’ll go on the next changeover”. And Serena was in control of the 3rd set, so any momentum was hers.

And if Ted wasn’t bad enough, USA also added Jim Courier who, long after most of the tennis media was forced to admit there was no substance to match-fixing allegations against the Williamses, said he was “still suspicious”.

Yet another e-mail (several, actually) went out to USA asking why they employed these guys, and why, with five African-American current or former WTA players having broadcast experience, none were hired. (ESPN was asked this last question also.) Keeping the perfect record intact, there was no response.

Then we have the tennis media bashing Serena in Australia for not working hard in the offseason, even though, when pressed, they had to admit none of them knew exactly what work she was or wasn’t doing. Yet they automatically assume the negative. And I’m sure you’ve heard both Williamses blasted for lack of commitment to the game, and compared unfavorably to other players like Justine Henin, who was used as an example of the dedicated player.

Well here’s some things they won’t tell you. The U.S. Open is Justine’s 11th tourney of the year. It’s Venus’ 10th. Venus also represented her country in Fed Cup on two occasions this year, versus none for Justine. Plus Venus played TeamTennis. Overall, Venus played more events, more matches, and doubles to boot. If you look at the last 4 seasons, 2003-07, Venus has played more tournaments outright than Justine, and made more Fed Cup appearances (6 vs 2), despite only playing 6 tourneys in a injury-marred 2006. If you consider Justine dedicated (and we do as well), then you also have to say the same for Venus.

//<![CDATA[ u003cbr>So, in summation, while there has been some change in the way blacks in tennis have been treated since Althea's day, it hasn't been nearly enough. Not as long as there are still those seeking to keep blacks out. Not while black players are still being denied proper credit for their abilities and achievements. And certainly not while the tennis media tries to present nearly every action in the most negative light possible, with some resorting to outright fabrication. So there is still work to be done.u003cbr>u003cbr>We hope our articles have informed and enlightened you. We'd like to thank the publishers of this site for posting them, and we will pass along any further information as we receive it. We love the sport of tennis, and hope to make it truly open for all who want to participate at any level. Only then can we truly honor Althea, those who came before her, and those that followed.u003cbr>u003cbr>J.u003c/font>u003c/div>nu003c/div>nn”,0] ); D(["ce"]); //–> //]]> So, in summation, while there has been some change in the way blacks in tennis have been treated since Althea’s day, it hasn’t been nearly enough. Not as long as there are still those seeking to keep blacks out. Not while black players are still being denied proper credit for their abilities and achievements.

And certainly not while the tennis media tries to present nearly every action in the most negative light possible, with some resorting to outright fabrication. So there is still work to be done.

We hope our articles have informed and enlightened you. We’d like to thank the publishers of this site for posting them, and we will pass along any further information as we receive it.

We love the sport of tennis, and hope to make it truly open for all who want to participate at any level. Only then can we truly honor Althea, those who came before her, and those that followed.