At the beginning of my junior tennis career, as a young eight-year-old kid, I felt tense walking up to tournament desks or attending player parties where I often was the only person of color. It felt cold and uncomfortable—almost as if I was intruding on a space that was not designated for someone like myself. After years of playing the game, I adapted and became numb to the tension, accepting the fact that there were just a few Black players to look up to as role models.
This was twenty years ago. Since then, a powerful wave of growth in what is still labeled as an "elitist" sport has crashed into the game, creating evident change when it comes to diversity. This growth is not only due to awareness of past racial tussles, but the willingness to take action. Although there are still very few Black-owned small businesses within the tennis realm, they are in fact leading the push to diversify the sport and build opportunities for those that didn't believe it was possible.
Doris Obih, founder of the non-profit 40 Love, almost removed herself from the very organization she felt so passionate about, solely due to the color of her skin. Obih, whose non-profit provides over 200 under-resourced children with academic resources and access to tennis facilities and coaches, initially believed more people would acknowledge the program if she weren't Black.
"You know what’s sad, I did think that I had to remove myself from 40 Love so we could get more traction," Obih tells TENNIS.com. I thought if they didn’t know that it was Black owned, then we could get people in. I was wrong, but that was my initial thought."
40 Love Founder Doris Obih helps young girl during tennis lesson.
Despite her overwhelming feelings, the 30-year-old founder pressed on with the vision of providing children a similar experience she had when picking up a racquet at seven years old. Obih's perseverance has led to hundreds of kids having access to the financial and educational support on and off the court. The program is now part of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network and is in partnership with both city officials in Southern California and the USTA.
The efforts of 40 Love are paramount when it comes to continuing to crack the historical racial glass ceiling lingering in the present. The foundation is undoubtably helping push the Black boys and girls past the road blocks, but the ceiling isn't completely shattered.
In a 2010 article of the New York Times, Serena and Venus Williams' father Richard pointed to self-efficiency as a key to the solution in establishing a stronger Black presence in the sport.
"You can only be good if you have a system behind you and not ahead of you, blocking you from getting there," Richard said.
One of the hurdles is the sport's hefty price tags. An hour for a private lesson can cost $75 or more and a quality racquet costs around $200. The fees alone can overwhelm many minority groups.
"40 Love is definitely trying to change that narrative. We are trying to bridge that gap in every aspect of the sport and in a child’s life," Obih says. "We never want a child to not do anything due to finances or any other differences they may have. Our foundation is trying to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes in order to conquer any obstacles these kids may face. We want to be there to help them and be there to support in any way possible."
Children practice during a 40 Love clinic.
Black children can find more sources of inspiration than ever before on their TV screens—Naomi Osaka, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Frances Tiafoe and Gael Monfils are all powerful examples. But according to Obih, it's the community leaders' responsibility to build confidence in the kids.
"Some kids that start playing tennis haven’t really watched tennis or know some of the names of the players that are paving the way. Obih says. "We as community leaders and parents have the responsibility to help input that confidence and drive into our kids. The source comes from the parent, the peer and community. The saying 'it takes a village,' will always be vital and will always be the factor."
It certainly does take a village to effectively ignite change. Ascot Manor—a clothing business—revolves around community effort or what its CEO Ahlilah Longmire refers to as "club members."
"I hope to help as many players as I can," Longmire tells TENNIS.com. "The business model for Ascot Manor is a community effort. Everyone can be involved and visually see who that player is, how they are progressing. We re-invest a portion of our sales back into the business to help sponsor those who need it most. You know where your money is going."
Ascot Manor launched in 2019 and is more than an athleisure/tennis apparel company. It's a socially conscious brand that is dedicated to helping under-resourced children and professionals stay in the game. Everything from their MaxDri tennis shirts to sleek court dresses help pay for talented juniors' and professionals' tournament fees, equipment and travel. The company's goal is to not let the racquets fall from the hands of these players due to financial barriers.
Junior tennis player holds up Ascot Manor towel.
Former Top 10 player Chanda Rubin recently told Christopher Clarey of the New York Times, "the challenge is to put racquets in the hands of kids." With Ascot Manor taking the initiative, the sport could possibly see its impact five, ten years from now.
"The reality is, I won't be able to help everyone, but I can provide opportunities where others are not willing, and I can damn sure do my best to find the few that need the support," Longmire says. "If I can get at least five in the Top 100 in the next ten years, I'd have a Mariah Carey fan-girl moment and pass out."
These two Black-owned small businesses are a part of a growing initiative that puts diversity first and is erasing tennis' dominion of white upper class to a more colorful and inclusive game that's available to everyone of all backgrounds.
Other Black-owned small businesses to note are Former Top 5 player and doubles Olympic Gold medalist Zina Garrison's Academy, which offers 45 weeks of free programming each year for young players, and the oldest privately owned Black tennis club in the nation, The Philadelphia Tennis Club.
While the percentage of Black-owned businesses is still low, the passion for change and reinventing the narrative in tennis is sky-high.
"Telling our stories and teaching the game our way will definitely bring more diversity. Being bold enough to build more academies and step out on our own will be impactful. I definitely do not know what tennis will look like in the next ten years, but if we continue to shake things up, then I can not wait to see it," Obih says.
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).