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Tennis pioneer Bob Ryland passes away at 100 years of age
Published Aug 05, 2020
Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams are some of the most prominent Black tennis players in history. There's at least one more name to add to that list: Bob Ryland. As the first Black professional tennis player ever, he helped pave the way for future Black Grand Slam champions.
On Monday, the sport lost a quiet legend when Ryland passed away in his home in New York. He was 100 years old.
At eight, Ryland picked up a racquet and would collect numerous titles during his junior career, before receiving a scholarship to Xavier University. After a year of competing, he would depart to serve the United States during World War II.
In 1945, the American would return to civilian life and receive another scholarship to play tennis for Wayne State University. His return home was far from warm and welcoming. There were many times that Ryland was forced to sleep in the team's bus or sit separately from his teammates at restaurants. Many places would not allow Ryland on their premises.
But Ryland continued to fight to play the game he loved and became the first Black player to compete in the NCAA championships, play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, and the first to play against white professionals at the World Pro Championships.
After becoming one of the most prominent players in the American Tennis Association, (an African-American tennis league parallel) he inspired the future generations of Black players.
“My only dream in tennis was to become good enough to beat Bob Ryland,” Ashe said in an interview with Ryland's wife Nancy.
Ryland would coach Ashe, Serena and Venus and a handful of celebrities, including Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.
Just last month Ryland became the oldest of New York City’s 13,775 tennis court permit holders. It seemed nothing could stop him from getting out on the courts. On Saturdays, Ryland would volunteer his time to work with students at Harlem’s Frederick Johnson Playground. During the week, he would often tune into the Tennis Channel or watch local players hit in Central Park.
Ryland's spirit will carry on through all of the people that were lucky enough to have met him.