They Said What? The Missing Hispanics

Thursday, September 19, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“Tennis is hugely popular in South America and Spain, Rafa is an international star, and yet, Spanish-speaking kids here are not choosing our sport. We should have huge numbers of Hispanic kids playing tennis in places like Miami, Southern California, New York and Chicago, and we don’t.”—Patrick McEnroe, head of USTA Player Development, quoted by Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald.

I’m a little reluctant to call this a “problem,” because as much as I like tennis, I’m not sure the biggest issue facing Hispanics in the U.S. is a lack of homegrown ATP or WTA cannon fodder. But it is certainly interesting that, as McEnroe notes, even with tennis’ vast popularity in nations with large Hispanic populations and a deep pool of well-loved Hispanic players, few American Hispanics are on the USTA radar, no matter how far you go down the scale in sanctioned competitions.

McEnroe went on to speculate: “My guess is it’s an economic issue, and a cultural issue. We are doing much better with African-Americans and Asian-Americans. I see lots of those kids playing at our regional centers, but very few Hispanics.” 

The “economic” factor is a bit baffling, because I’m not sure Hispanics have significantly less economic clout than any of the other Americans who have embraced tennis. One thing that does occur to me is that while African-American kids tend to be attracted to “American” team sports (basketball, football, baseball), Hispanic youth might be drawn more powerfully to soccer (the true “opiate of the masses”—not religion).

I just spent over two weeks observing that very phenomenon at Flushing Meadows Corona Park during the U.S. Open. While scads of whites and minorities flooded toward the entrances to the National Tennis Center, scores of Hispanic kids in replica soccer jerseys (nice job, Vodafone!) flooded toward the soccer fields.  

Nevertheless, the USTA has not just identified this condition, it’s also trying to remedy it with a new program aimed at Hispanic Americans: Tenis Para Todos. Details about the program and related events can be found at the eponymous website, www.tenisparatodos.com

In case you were wondering just how dire the drought is in the nation that can take credit for producing Dominican-born, three-time Grand Slam singles runner-up and current ESPN commentator Mary Jo Fernandez, there isn’t a single male who claims Hispanic heritage in the ATP Top 300. The women are well in the lead in this diversity derby: No. 48 Monica Puig is a Puerto Rican native; No. 72 Christina McHale has a Cuban mother, and No. 115 Maria Sanchez, a former All-American at the University of Southern California, is a Mexican-American.

But there’s a further issue that muddles the scorekeeping here: The very word “Hispanic” has no clear, precise definition. It essentially refers to the existence of some relation to Spain or Portugal, in which case a Juan Martin del Potro or Alejandro Falla can comfortably called “Hispanic”—as could that supreme tennis star, Pancho Gonzalez. 

“Hispanic” does not denote race (not in the eyes of the  U.S. Census Bureau, among other powerful institutions); it’s more a designation of ethnicity. Thus, going by the book of recognized races and ethnicities, we have Black-Hispanics, as well as Asian-Hispanics and White-Hispanics. However you want to slice up the identity pie, the situation the USTA sees and hopes to alleviate somewhat is a real one. And Lord knows we could certainly use another Pancho Gonzalez right about now.

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