Breaking Barriers At The Net

By Tony McClean, BASN
Updated: February 22, 2010

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — Names like Jackie Robinson (baseball), Earl Lloyd (basketball), and Willie O’Ree (hockey) are synonymous with most sports fans as being pioneers in their given sports.

But as always, there are several other sports figures whose names aren’t as readily known in mainstream media. Such is Robert Ryland, who is recognized as being the first ever Black tennis pro.

A native of Chicago, and a 1940 graduate of Tilden Tech High, he won the Chicago Prep Championship in 1937, and was runner-up for the Illinois state singles title in 1939.

He also captained his senior team before going to Xavier University of New Orleans in 1941, winning eight singles matches in his only year of competition there.

A member of the Army Air Corps during World War II, Ryland served with Special Services. During the war, he staged tennis fund raising benefits throughout the country.

He also played on the American Tennis Association (ATA) Circuit, finishing as a singles runner-up nationally in 1942, 1943 and 1944. He was Alice Marble’s doubles partner in ATA Mixed Doubles when both played Dr. Reg. Weir and Mary Hardwick in 1944.

Eventually, playing for Wayne State was a matter of circumstance for Ryland.

In 1945, he was at nearby Selfridge Air Field when he was honorably discharged. Besides playing at Wayne in ’45, that summer Ryland won the Detroit Public Parks, Hamtramck Open and Motor City Open singles titles.

Ryland anchored Wayne State’s men’s tennis immediately after World War II.

He played at the No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles flights both seasons he was at Wayne (1945-46), and also appeared in the NCAA National Championships at the conclusion of both seasons.

Under WSU Hall of Fame coach Norman G. Wann, the Tartars, led by Ryland and Delbert W. Russell, reemerged in 1945 as a Midwest tennis power. Eventually, the tennis pair were inducted into the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame.

Men’s tennis had been dropped after the 1942 season because of the war, and the sport was reinstated in 1945. The ’45 squad went 5-3, and in ’46 the Tartars finished 10-4.

During both seasons Wayne defeated several major college teams in the Midwest. In 1945, Ryland teamed with Russell at No. 1 doubles. They produced a 6-2 record, and in singles play he finished with a 5-3 record.

In the 1946 campaign, Ryland finished with a 9-4 singles record, and a 5-7 doubles mark. His main doubles partner that season was James W. Alexander, who teamed with Ryland for six matches.

In the 1945 NCAA Men’s Tennis National Championships, Ryland advanced to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Army’s Lt. Frank Mehner. At the 1946 NCAA Nationals, Ryland was eliminated in the third round by Southern California’s Tom Falkenburg.

After the 1946 season was concluded, Ryland left Wayne for California to pursue his tennis career on the AT A Circuit. In 1954-55 he attended and played tennis for Tennessee A&I, and was awarded a B.S. in Physical Education in 1955 from the school.

Ryland then moved to New York City where he resides today, beginning a long and illustrious coaching career. He has coached several professional players, including Hal Solomon, Leslie Allen and Renee Blount.

At one point, Ryland served as the personal tennis coach for comedian Bill Cosby. Ryland is based at the Mid-Town Tennis Club in NYC. Ryland is still playing tennis.

Teaming with Hank Conway, he won the Senior Tennis Tournament Doubles Olympic Championship in 1989. Another highlight in Ryland’s career includes playing in the 1959 World Pro Championship.

In 2006, he won the USTA 85 and over public parks title.

Besides coaching in New York City, Ryland has also taught and coached at clubs in Bermuda, Puerto Rico and at the prestigious St. Alban’s Tennis Club in Washington, D.C.

During his career, Ryland has worked with many top players including French Open finalist Harold Solomon, Leslie Allen, Venus and Serena Williams, and Bruce Foxworth.

NOTE: Wayne State University athletics contributed to this story.