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The Rally: Tennis' contribution to the fearlessness of this generation
Joel Drucker, Van Sias and Steve Tignor talk about how the the events of the 1960s inspired Arthur Ashe to speak out, and how today’s protests have inspired Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Frances Tiafoe and others to do the same.
Published Jun 08, 2020
Joel and Van,
Is 2020 turning into another 1968? The parallels are hard to miss. Today there are demonstrations in cities across the United State and the world, just as there were in ’68. There’s also a presidential election approaching in which the Republican candidate is calling for law and order—or, in Donald Trump’s case, “LAW AND ORDER!”—just as there was then.
For our purposes, the next question might be: How did African-American tennis players react to the events of 1968, and how are they reacting to what’s happening in 2020?
The most prominent black player of that time, of course, was Arthur Ashe, and that year had a profound effect on him. Previously, he had been something of a reluctant radical. Moderate and thoughtful by nature, he joined the Army and kept his distance from the more militant black-nationalist groups that formed at his college, UCLA, during the 1960s. But by the spring of ’68, he was ready, as we would say today, to “use his platform.”
That March, Ashe laid out his political beliefs in a speech at the Church of the Redeemer in Washington, D.C. His views were still moderate: He emphasized personal responsibility and told his mostly African-American audience that he advocated a “a do-it-yourself, blood-and-guts, Me Power kind of philosophy.” Just what a tennis player would say, right?
“Something came over him,” one of Ashe’s biographers, Eric Allen Hall wrote of that speech. “He felt empowered and emboldened, and he realized that his words meant something to the audience.”
From then on, Ashe would be an athlete and an activist. Martin Luther King, before his murder the following month, wrote Ashe a letter of praise and encouragement. Was it a coincidence that Ashe also began to play the best tennis of his career, and won the US Open that summer?
Arthur Ashe, on the court, in 1968. (Getty Images)
Today there are more African-Americans near the top of the sport than there were in 1968, including Venus and Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe. There’s also Naomi Osaka. She’s Japanese, but her father is Haitian, and since George Floyd’s death, she has dedicated her social-media posts to the protests, often eloquently.
Like Osaka, Gauff and Tiafoe have also gone all in. The 16-year-old Gauff, whose maternal grandmother, Yvette Lee Odom, integrated a Florida high school in 1961, gave an excellent speech in her hometown of Delray Beach last week. “If you’re choosing silence, you’re choosing the side of the oppressor,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tiafoe and his girlfriend, Ayan Broomfield, gathered many of their fellow African-American players into a virtual show of solidarity around the phrase, “Racquets Down, Hands Up.” Serena’s husband, Alexis Ohanian, Sr., made news when he gave up his board seat at Reddit and stipulated that it go to an African-American. And this weekend, two young white players, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul, joined a protest march in L.A.
Ashe would go on to help make real change in South Africa. As MLK recognized, Ashe, by virtue of being a tennis player, had the ear of an international audience, and one that was often upper-class and conservative. Today, Gauff, Tiafoe and Osaka (as well as Opelka and Paul) have the ear of a similar audience. That means these players have the power to inform and to change minds, but it also means they could come in for criticism from people who think athletes should “stick to sports.”
Joel and Van, have you been as impressed by the fearlessness of this generation as I have? And how do you think tennis players today can contribute to the cause?
Naomi Osaka documents images from social justice protests In Minneapolis and Los Angeles:
Steve and Van,
It’s been terrific to see the way these players have expressed themselves. Tennis is such a showcase of individualism—a vivid expression of personality. Now, amid very challenging times, these players are taking a stand, using their platforms and hoping to make a difference.
Certainly, when it comes to having a broader impact, Ashe is the role model. As we ponder all he did, it’s great to see that Ashe’s name adorns the biggest stadium in tennis—and that he is permanently honored within a facility named for another racquet-wielding crusader, Billie Jean King. Ashe and King, both born during that battle-tempered World War II year of 1943, each saw how much clout a star from an individual, international sport can make in the broader world.
In the months and years to come, it will be interesting to see how today’s socially conscious tennis players continue to connect their efforts to those of Ashe and King. They might also wish to engage in dialogue with such tennis notables as Katrina Adams and James Blake. Adams, the first African-American to serve as USTA president, has a book due out next year titled Own the Arena, that will include an insider’s look at one of the most controversial moments in recent tennis history, the 2018 US Open women’s final between Osaka and Serena. Clearly, much from that account will stretch far beyond the lines of the court.
Katrina Adams embraces Serena Williams after her 2018 US Open final loss to Naomi Osaka. (Getty Images)
Long conscious of social issues, Blake experienced a brutal, first-hand form of injustice back in 2015, when he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by a New York City policeman who mistook him for a criminal. Soon after that, Blake authored a book titled Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together. Just this week, in an interview with the Associated Press, Blake reflected on recent events and said, “It saddens me to see that kind of policing is still going on, that kind of brutality.”
Disturbing as both past and recent events have been, to see tennis players speaking out is inspiring—and could also spark yet more dialogue about these topics. I’m eager for that to continue.
Steve, Van: Any thoughts on what form tennis activism could take moving forward?
Steve and Joel,
It has been extremely encouraging to see the efforts made by the next generation of black players—whether it’s Gauff delivering a speech or Tiafoe starting a movement through social media. When I was playing junior tennis in Alabama back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were very few black professional players for me to personally relate to. The fact that this crop of young athletes is taking such a strong stance and following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Ashe, the Williams sisters and Blake by speaking out against injustice raises hope that change will eventually come.
The flip side of that, though, is the tragic fact that my community still faces such issues. And is it a failure on all of our parts that a 16-year-old like Gauff has to take such an active role in speaking up on problems that have plagued this country for decades?
There are signs that progress is being made: The protests taking place throughout the nation—and around the globe—have shown that black people are far from alone in this current fight. As I’ve looked at my various social media outlets over the week, I’ve seen posts from people who aren’t black noting that they are looking to learn and do more in regard to understanding the plight of others who don’t look like them. At this point, it’s important for people given certain privileges in society based on the color of their skin to be an ally to those who have been mistreated and are threatened.
Coco Gauff, as 2020 began. (Getty Images)
The professional tennis world has the opportunity to set an example on promoting unity, as few sports bring together people from such disparate backgrounds. To all of the players, I would say: take to heart the messages that Tiafoe, Gauff and others are delivering. And once those have been processed, look into what you can do to be proactive, such as promoting your own message through social media, partnering with someone directly affected by injustice or joining a protest.
Of course, people have different belief systems on the current situation, with some seeing the protests as an excuse to loot and riot. I would hope those people can get to the point of listening to what black people and like-minded allies are saying: Help is needed to ensure everyone is treated equally.
Steve and Joel: Do you think the governing bodies around tennis can do more to get involved?
James Blake discusses police brutality and racial injustice:
Joel and Van,
Two things come to mind when I think of the influence that activist tennis players can have. 1) They can use their international reach, which goes far beyond most U.S. team-sports athletes, and 2) they can alter the way that people in the tennis world think of a meritocracy.
Ashe did both of these things. He recognized apartheid as an evil political system, and he knew from the changes that he had seen in the Jim Crow south during the 1960s that progress was possible even in South Africa. By breaking the color barrier there, and reaching the final of the national tournament in 1973, he helped put a dent in apartheid’s two-tiered regime. Ashe was also dedicated to trying to get young black players into a game that hadn’t traditionally welcomed them; he understood that the playing field in tennis needed serious leveling. On another trip to Africa, he encouraged a young talent named Yannick Noah. When Noah made his Wimbledon debut in 1978, Ashe played doubles with him.
Today, you can already see a player like Gauff’s global reach. When Roger Federer (who shares an agent with Gauff) posted a black square on Instagram to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter, she quickly sent him a list of real-world actions he could take to follow up. Gauff and Osaka, in particular, have big fan followings in countries all over the world, and whatever they say will be heard and heeded everywhere, in a way that’s not true for a baseball star or even many NFL players in the U.S.. With the huge demonstrations in London, Paris and Germany last week, we’ve already seen how the Black Lives Matters cause can cross borders. Getting someone with Federer’s following and influence to become a regular spokesperson for that cause would only raise awareness higher.
As for our idea of what constitutes a meritocracy, tennis players are justifiably proud of their sport’s do-it-yourself tradition. No one helps you on the court, and you’re only as good as your ranking. Tennis players are only responsible for themselves, which, as so many of the sport’s champions will attest, can lead to selfishness. So it’s a good moment to be reminded that, without a level playing field, a true meritocracy can’t exist, and that not every athlete starts in the same place.
Perhaps shining a light on the injustices that African-Americans face in the U.S. will help us remember that, when it comes to getting involved in tennis and rising through its ranks, black players still face more hurdles than whites. Ashe obviously understood that, and he did what he could to help Noah navigate his way to the pros. Of course, this can't just be the responsibility of African-American players. Everyone else needs to hear what they’re saying.
Steve and Van,
It’s interesting indeed how moments like our current situation illuminate both tennis’ singular DNA and its civic possibilities. Inside the lines, the sport is so ruthlessly individual. Yet in recent months, on the economic front, we’ve seen the emergence of an extensive, thoughtful dialogue about the entire sport’s compensation structure and how hundreds of players fit into that mix. As much as some players regard themselves as solo acts—certainly that’s true on the court—they have seen vividly this year how much they are in other ways connected to one another.
And so, should tennis organizations wish to pursue what some have already started amid recent events, a communal opportunity is potentially blooming right in front of us—aided by words, pictures, videos, social media and possibly even more. In its own way, the flexibility and speed of social media offers many possibilities.
What Tiafoe, Osaka and Gauff have done are superb, contemporary examples of an athlete taking action. Ditto for Nicole Gibbs and Madison Keys. Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are also rarely shy about speaking out. I like that each of these people has taken a personal approach—quintessential tennis behavior to see singular entities, speaking truth to power, doing it their own way.
As far as the governing bodies go, perhaps indeed there can be more organized efforts to make tennis increasingly accessible. Have we currently reached a new tipping point of this need demanding to be met, akin to what Ashe and his close friends Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder did when they created the National Junior Tennis League in 1969? Would several active players be willing to play a leadership role here too? It is intriguing to ponder what kind of form outreach might take in the 21st century.
Beyond the matter of bringing tennis to more people, is there an opportunity present now to create a global tennis task force that addresses other social issues? That would be fantastic, be it at events, with social media, as well as other possibilities. Do marketers that are already part of the tennis world seek to get involved as well? Back in 2018, Nike made a very thoughtful ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. Are there ways tennis players can be part of that conversation too?
Van, what are your thoughts on these topics and where tennis can fit in?
Coco Gauff uses her social media platform to take a stand against racism:
Joel and Steve,
Exclusion, in some form, has always been a part of tennis—whether it’s at the amateur or professional level. I consider myself fortunate that I didn’t encounter any blatant acts of racism while competing in the juniors, even though at the majority of the tournaments I entered, I would often be the only black player on site. Access to the same amount of resources was an issue: The only time I played on clay courts was during tournaments, because my family wasn’t able to afford membership at a country club or a smaller-scale racquet club—the places in my town that had clay.
Would we have even been able to join, though, if we had the financial means, or would we have been turned away because of the color of our skin? I’ll never know.
I do feel there has been substantial progress made in combating the exclusion that has been a part of the sport for so long, but, of course, more could be done.
After the initial impact of the global pandemic, the ATP and WTA tours came together to present “Tennis United,” showing that the men and women are unified in their efforts to deal with something that affects everyone. Combating racism in some way—whether it's spreading messages that don’t skirt around the fact that people of color are being treated unjustly, or making donations to activist groups—could be part of the mission for both groups.
Players such as Gauff, Tiafoe, Gibbs, the Williams sisters and Navratilova have been vocal, using their platform to speak out and up for equality. Over the weekend, it was an encouraging sign to see two young white American players, Opelka and Paul, participating in one of the Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles.
While it’s somewhat mind-blowing to believe that we’re still facing the same issues in regard to racial injustice that we’ve been dealing with for decades, as a society, we’re in a prime position to elicit change. And as a portion of the global community that’s representative of bringing together people from different backgrounds, the tennis world has an opportunity to set an example for others going forward.