The Next Generation??

By Charles Bricker
Updated: May 28, 2008

Rising star, Asia Muhammad

Rising star, Asia Muhammad

FLORIDA — Sybil Smith sat quietly on the sideline at a Sunrise Tennis Center hardcourt while her 15-year-old daughter, Sloane Stephens, worked on her ground strokes with coach Nick Saviano.

A four-hour drive north, in Bradenton, Nadine Duval watched, smiling, as her 12-year-old Haitian-American daughter, Victoria, slugged strong shots back at a Bollettieri Academy coach during service return drills.

Stephens, Duval, Madison Keys, Sachia Vickery, Jarmere Jenkins, Jadon Phillips, Asia Muhammad and perhaps as many as another two dozen significantly talented young black U.S. athletes are out there working on their futures, in record numbers — all serious prospects for professional careers.

Never have there been this many black players rocking junior tennis, and there is reason to believe many more will follow because as they become more visible, more parents will be influenced to introduce their children to the game.
It’s hard to look past the history of Venus and Serena Williams, that sense that ‘if they can do it, I can do it,’” USTA executive Patrick McEnroe said, explaining the surge of young blacks into a game that was once the almost exclusive domain of whites.

“I don’t know whether it’s coaches or neighborhood programs that is getting all these kids involved, and it really doesn’t matter. Let’s just get them out there as much as we can. This is a game that all kids can succeed at. Why not African-Americans?”

Certainly, the Williams sisters are a prime reason for the influx. So is James Blake, the Harvard-educated top-10 star and highest-ranked black American man since Arthur Ashe.

And, of course, there is Ashe himself, who died in 1993 but who probably inspired young black adults, once they began families, to get their children into tennis.

Since Ashe, and Althea Gibson before him, there has been a slow trickle of black tennis professionals, but never in the numbers there are today.

Among the best prospects:

Asia Muhammad

Henderson, Nev. Tall and slender, she’s 17 years old, No. 18 among world ITF juniors and No. 378 on the WTA Tour. In early March, she was runner-up at a $50,000 pro event in Las Vegas, beating players ranked 89 and 105 in the second and third rounds.

Madison Keys

Boca Raton

She turned 13 in February, having won both the Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl 12s championships in December. She trains with the USTA at its development center in Boca. For many, she’s the No. 1 American prospect among junior girls.

Sachia Vickery

Miramar She just turned 13 and in late April won the Gator Bowl 16s, playing “up” two age groups to beat Duval in the final. Also in April, she won the Easter Bowl 14s. She’s probably not going to be physically imposing, but she’s an extraordinary athlete and very quick.

Victoria Duval

Delray Beach

She won’t be 13 until November and she will be physically imposing. She won the Copper Bowl 14s in Tucson in January and the Winter Nationals 12s in December.

Sloane Stephens

Boca Raton

Comes from a very athletic family. Her mother was a 1988 All-American swimmer at Boston University and her father is former New England Patriots running back John Stephens, a first-round draft pick in 1988. Last year she led her U.S. 14s team to a world championship in the Czech Republic. She was promising enough to be a wild card in March at the Sony Ericsson Open qualifying tournament.

A year ago, there wasn’t a U.S. women’s prospect who could be forecast to step into the void that will be left when the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport retire. Suddenly, there’s a glut.

There aren’t nearly as many male junior prospects, but there is Donald Young, the No. 1 junior in the world. While he no longer plays junior tennis and is at a career-best No. 73 on the ATP tour, he’s still 18 and the vanguard of the expansion of black U.S. juniors.

There’s a drop-off after Young, though Jenkins, who trains with the USTA at Boca, and Phillips, of Macon, Ga., probably will have pro careers and, because male pros develop later than females, they’re more or less on schedule. Both are 17. Phillips won the Gator Bowl 18s in April and Jenkins is just now testing the waters against pros ranked in the 700s

Behind them are 16-year-old Evan King of Chicago and Nathan Pasha, 15, of Austell, Ga. — both working with USTA coaches in Boca.

“You can put a basketball hoop up at the local playground and you’ll have 20 kids there the next day. Tennis isn’t that simple and it’s a lot more expensive,” says Nick Bollettieri, who has taken a personal hand in training three black juniors — Vickery, Duval and 9-year-old Alicia Black.

It fell to the USTA to come up with financial help and most of the top black prospects are getting grants, travel money and coaching without being required to train at the USTA center in Boca.

That’s key, says McEnroe, who began work the second week in May as general manager of Elite Player Development for the USTA.

“I like the idea of partnering with other training centers,” he said. “It will give juniors the option of working with the coach they and their parents choose.”

The infusion of more black athletes into tennis is not only tapping into a great source of potential future stars, but also has given the USTA more optimism about the future of American tennis at the professional level than it’s had in a long time.