The modern day version of tennis dates back to the 16th century when rackets came into use, and the game began to be called “tennis.”
It became popular in the U.S. in 1874 and in the recorded history of the game, little or nothing was mentioned about the inclusion of African Americans.
In 1881, when tennis was beginning to be played competitively, it led to the establishment of tennis clubs. In the 1930s, tennis was considered an “elite” sports played in the serene settings of these white established settings, even though black players began to emerge in middle class communities.
By 1916, more than a dozen black tennis clubs created the American Tennis Association (ATA) which had more than 25,000 members in 150 clubs ranging from the upper crust of African-American society which included colleges like Tuskegee Institute, Xavier of Louisiana, Central State, Hampton, Wilberforce and Morehouse Colleges.
The First Champion
Lucy Diggs Slowe won the first ATA National Women’s Championship in 1917. One of the early greats was Ora Mae Washington from Philadelphia. She attended Temple University and was dubbed the “Queen of Black Womens’ Tennis. She won the ATA National Singles Titles in 1929 and 1937 and was the ATA National Doubles Champion for 12 consecutive years.
The white USTA champion Helen Wills Moody refused to play her for fear that she might lose to a Black woman.
Another pioneer was Tally Holmes who played tennis in the early part of the twentieth century- 1910s and 1920s.
Before he became one of the founding members of the American Tennis Association, Tally and Lucy Stone became the first African Americans to win a championship.
He won the first ATA National Men’s Singles title in 1917 and singles titles in 1918 and 1921, along with ATA Men’s Doubles title in 1917, 1918, 1921, 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1927.
The first Venus and Serena
The Peters Sisters, Margaret “Pete”and Matilda “Repeat” were products of Tuskegee Institute and their famed coach, Cleve Abbott. They were the most dominant pair of women players during their 14-year championship reign in the American Tennis Association and helped lay the groundwork for the future of African-American Tennis in this country. Although they blazed the trail for others like Althea Gibson, Bonnie Logan and the Williams sisters, the Peters sisters did not received much recognition for their accomplishments.
McDaniel Breaks the Color Barrier
Jimmy McDaniel was a young protégé the top rank Black player in 1939 and dominated black college tennis while at Xavier, LA and the ATA. The left-handed whiz won ATA national singles championships in 1939-41 and 1946, and from 1939-41, McDaniel claimed titles in 38 of 43 ATA tournaments.
Though not popular among white players, McDaniel played the best white player (and one of the best all-time) on July 29, 1940 in front of 2,000 spectators at Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. He dropped both matches, 6-1, 6-2, but Budge acknowledged that McDaniel could hold his own against many other top white players of the day.
Lucy Slowe Diggs
Margaret & Matilda Peters
Harlem Tennis Association Founders
Hampton Pirates National Champions
After the United States Lawn Tennis Association (now called U.S. Tennis Association or USTA was organized, in 1939, Time Magazine ran an article titled “Sport: Jim Crow Tennis,” August 8, 1939, which exposed the rhetoric that blacks weren’t considered good enough to be members of any of their tennis social sets.
The Black members of the American Tennis Association which was considered the most organized of the “Negro sports leagues” strongly disagreed.
It became the most popular college sport for blacks after football with more than half of black college students playing the game.
The ATA even assembled teams of its brightest stars and barnstormed across the country, playing exhibitions against white clubs.
The “Open era” began in 1968 when Grand Slam tournaments agreed to allow professional players to compete with amateurs.
The Great Era
Althea Gibson was another protégé of the ATA, she and her family relocated to New York City where she began taking tennis lessons at Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Club in 1941 under Dr. Walter Johnson and participated in her first tennis tournament sponsored by the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) the next year. She won the first of ten consecutive ATA National Championships in 1947.
Dr. Johnson convinced her to move to Wilmington, North Carolina to work on her tennis skills with Dr. Hubert A. Eaton and her historic rise began. In 1950, Althea was invited to compete in the All-England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon for the first time.
She graduated from Florida A&M, moved to Jefferson City, Missouri and began training and working with tennis coach Sydney Llewellyn.
Gibson made the top ten rankings in the United States Tennis Association in 1952 and 1953 and from 1955 through 1958. She reached the world top ten ranking from 1956 through 1958, becoming No. 1 in 1957 and 1958. In 1957, Althea became the first African American woman to win Wimbledon and defended her title in 1958.
King of the Courts
Arthur Ashe Jr. was an African American male to win three Grand Slam titles. Ashe was the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. In his youth, he was tutored by Ron Charity, who as the best black tennis player in Richmond and later by Dr. Robert Johnson, who tutored Althea Gibson also.
After his death in 1993, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the United States President Bill Clinton.
Other notable figures in history were:
Dr. Robert “Bob” Screen, the winningest coach in Black college tennis history. He won 25 national championships at Hampton University.
In Harlem, NY, Augustus “Gus” Jenkins, a local businessman and avid tennis buff brought together the greatest names in tennis of the day, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson and David Dinkins to form the famed Harlem Tennis Association.