When I started writing about the unsung African-American tennis pioneer Jimmie McDaniel, I was told that the first person I needed to talk to was Art Carrington.
For good reason. Carrington, a 73-year-old teacher, researcher and former pro, wrote the book on the game’s unsung African-American pioneers. Black Tennis: An Archival Collection 1890-1962 is a story he unearthed from century-old newspapers that served Black communities, and one that had largely been left out of tennis’ history books.
It was also the story of Carrington’s own life. Introduced to tennis at 10 by his mother, he learned to play at the all-Black North End Tennis Club in Elizabeth, N.J., in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I didn’t know tennis was a white game,” he says with a laugh. “I’d hardly seen a white player.”
North End offered Carrington more than a healthy diversion. It immersed him in a community of doctors, lawyers, educators and other members of the Black elite who structured their social lives around the game, and formed the backbone of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the African-American counterpart to the USTA. It launched him into the same orbit as luminaries like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. And it helped him attend Hampton University on an athletic scholarship.
“Tennis gave me a world,” Carrington says.
In 1972, he helped give a New England TV audience a glimpse of that world when he lost the final of the ATA Championships to Horace Reid in five scintillating sets. The match was broadcast by Boston’s WGBH, and it opened people’s eyes to the quality of ATA play. Carrington would win the title the following year, but unlike Ashe, he didn’t feel comfortable in the white tennis milieu of that time. It would be through teaching that Carrington would convey his experience of the game to a wider audience.
In 1980, he opened the Carrington Tennis Academy at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Over 40 years, he has taught thousands of players and developed a unique brand of instruction based on “wholebody integration.” Incorporating ideas from martial and flow arts, and using everything from hula hoops to bo staffs to rhythmic ribbon sticks, Carrington emphasizes balance and fluidity, which leads, he hopes, to “beautiful tennis.”
Carrington’s son, Lex, was a high-level player who now coaches at his academy, and his granddaughter, Safiya, plays for LSU.
Over 60 years in the game, Carrington has seen progress and loss. His beloved North End Tennis Club is gone, and the culture that went with it vanished with integration. This spring, though, he was heartened by the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation. Seeing white Americans join the marches reminded him of Don Budge crossing the color line in 1940 to take on McDaniel in Harlem.
“That was out in front,” Carrington says. “Like seeing a Black Lives Matter sign in an all-white neighborhood. It’s like, ‘Did I just see that?’”
As he teaches the game, Carrington sees himself as a representative and repository of a Black tennis tradition that most of his students know nothing about.
“I try to keep that history alive,” he says. “It’s a way I can make my own Black life matter.
Who will remain in this year's 21 & Under Club, and which new players will join them?
Find out all week on TENNIS.com and Baseline.
Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek