From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein (published in 1999):
“Given the same chance as others have had, blacks would dominate our sport as they have in other sports”, asserted Arthur Ashe, tennis first black men’s champion, in 1968.
For the first half of the twentieth century, blacks had no chance to compete at, let alone dominate, world-class tournaments. A major reason for this racial discrimination was that white athletes in tennis and other sports were afraid of competing on an equal basis with blacks.
“For 120 years, white America has gone to extraordinay lengths to discredit and discourage black participation in sports because black athletes have been so successful,” Ashe wrote in a New York times column.
In the not-so-good old days, the “Whites only” signs on tennis courts didn’t refer only to clothes. To end that separate but unequal segregation and to promote the grassroots game among black Americans, the American Tennis Association was organized in 1916. Before the ATA, black players, chiefly from the Northeast, participated in invitational interstate tournaments, the first being staged in Philadelphia in 1898. But since blacks were barred from playing in United States Lawn Tennis Association – sanctioned tournaments prior to 1940, the ATA struggled for years to ovecome that towering barrier to equality.
Despite a shortage of rackets, balls, courts, topflight coaching and funds for travel, outstanding black players such as Ora Washington, Jimmie McDaniel, and Oscar Johnson Jr emerged. Washington, a superb all-around athlete, captured seven straight ATA national women’s singles titles from 1929 to 1935.
McDaniel was “the greatest black tennis player of them all,” according to Sydney Llewellyn, a self-described archivist of black tennis from New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “McDaniel was better than Ashe. He was bigger, stronger,” Llewellyn told Tennis USTA. “He was a tall lefty, maybe 6’5. He’d take etwo steps and be all over the net. He had it all. He would have won a bunch of Grand Slams somewhere along the line, if he had had the chance.”
He didn’t because his heyday, albeit an obscure one, ended in the 1940s. Johnson dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of tennis”, came closer. As a skinny seventeen-year-old from Los Angeles, he broke ground as the first black to play in and win a USLTA national tournament, the 1948 National Junior Public Parks. Five years later promoter Jack Kramer offered Johnson a pro contact, but a snapped ebow tendon prematurely finished his career.
Interview by Philippe Maria for l’Equipe, June 6, translation by Tennis Buzz.
Former world number one Steffi Graf, while on a visit to Paris, talks about her difficult year in 1988, when she completed the Grand Slam. An unmatched performance that Serena Williams could achieve this year.
Q: You are in Paris this weekend, did you spend some time at Roland Garros, do you still follow tennis news?
I follow results through various media, but with much hindsight. These last four days, for example, I was in Hamburg for my foundation and I haven’t followed what was going on in Paris.
Q: So we won’t see you playing the Legends tournament anytime soon.
No, I’m very busy elsewhere, and it would not be possible physically. I would have to prepare myself, and I don’t have the time nor the desire to do it.
Q: Back to 1988, how much do you remember about that year?
I especially remember the extreme fatigue I experienced in New York. I felt an expectation around me that was not mine, that became oppressive and simply kept me from focusing on my tournament. It was terrible.
Q: This Grand Slam or rather Golden Grand Slam, since you also won gold at the Seoul Olympics, was not a personal goal?
No! It was absolutely not a goal of mine to complete the Grand Slam. As with other things in life, I am someone who advances step by step. In fact, this notion of Grand Slam fell on me during the Wimbledon tournament. The media no longer stopped talking about that. And it reached its highest point in Flushing Meadows. It was absolutely terrible. Everyone was telling me about that, but I didn’t understand this expectation. You have to remember that I was only nineteen. I was literally exhausted!
Q: Even if you had not had a very difficult tournament to the final…
Yes, but in the final, Gabriela Sabatini gave me trouble and the end of the match was complicated. Mentally and physically, I was at breaking point. I remember that at the end of the match cramps began to arrive.
Q: The Grand Slam was not your personal quest. Nevertheless, what did you feel immediately after your success?
Relief. Immediately, I was not aware of the scope of this feat. After my victory? I could not enjoy. Of course, we did celebrate, but I was especially exhausted, and that lasted several days. I can’t say I was proud of what I had accomplished. I was relieved it was over.
Q: And you had to play the Olympics in Korea.
Yes, but I took a break after the US Open. I continued to work out but I hung up my racket. And finally, I loved these Olympic Games, I had a lot of fun. The atmosphere, the fact of finding myself in a team with all German athletes, it did me a world of good, even if the end of the tournament was tougher. It was refreshing.
Q: You end your year with a defeat in the semifinals at the Masters. This final false note was not too hard to digest?
Absolutely not. The season was over, and it was the most important. Today, players can take breaks in their season. We, we played all year. We stopped late November and we set off again for a new season at the end of December. It was really hard to bear.
Q: Twenty-seven years later, what is your opinion on this year like no other?
I find it incredible that I could cope with all that, with the pressure to complete the Golden Slam! It is the fulfillment of my career. Although I have never played for records or for the number one ranking, I think I can be satisfied with me.
Will Serena Williams complete the calendar Grand Slam this year?
- Yes (80%, 33 Votes)
- No (20%, 8 Votes)
Total Voters: 41
I spent a great few days at Roland Garros this year, I tried to share my experience live via my new instagram account @tennisbuzzlive, I hope you enjoyed it. Here’s a recap of my Roland Garros 2015 in 15 instagrams.
1- May 21st, my first day at Roland Garros 2015, the third day of the qualifyings. Few people in the alleys, a relaxed atmosphere, a different way to enjoy the Roland Garros stadium before the actual start of the tournament.
2- My first RG15 match: German hope Alexander Zverev vs Igor Sijsling.
3- Defending champion Maria Sharapova hard at work, I really enjoy watching players at practice, interacting with their teams and fans. More pics of Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros 2015.
A Wilander interview is always worth a read. Prior to Roland Garros 2015, Mats Wilander opened up to Roland Garros Magazine about his three victories in Paris, Bjorn Borg, and the futile notion of the result.
My first image of Roland Garros is from the TV. It’s me as a kid then as a teenager, watching Bjorn Borg’s finals glued to the screen. I’m not sure as to whether I saw the first, against Manuel Orantes. I am certain I watched the next four though. At the time, there were only two TV channels in Sweden, but we certainly never missed one of Borg’s matches.
The whole of Sweden was proud of what Bjorn Borg achieved. He wasn’t a star as such – he was beyond that, too big to fit that description. He was inaccesible, out of reach. For us in Sweden, he was the greatest player of all time, the hold he had on the two biggest tournaments in the world, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, was unheard of. And who cares if he never won the US Open. On a personal level, he wasn’t my idol. I preferred Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and other less legendary players like Adriano Panatta and Guillermo Vilas. But Borg was a cut above the rest. There was something unreal about him.
1981, Roland Garros juniors’ title:
That year I won the juniors’ title, seeing off some hefty competition. If my memory serves me correctly, I beat Pat Cash, Miloslav Mecir and then Henri Leconte in the final. I had already stopped playing in most junior tournaments. I had been to Wimbledon once the previous year when I was 16 and lost in the first round, and I’d never played the Australian or US Open. To me it was a big win and I savoured it all the more since I knew that it was my last junior tournament. My coach Jan-Anders Sjogren and I had decided to make the step up after Roland Garros. And I have this memory after winning the juniors final of leaving No.1 Court to go to Centre Court and watch the last set of the final between Borg and Ivan Lendl.
What a moment that was. Seeing Bjorn Borg, in the flesh, win his sixth French Open. It was the first time that I saw him live on the court that had been the scene of his finest achievements, and he polished off the last set of the final 6-1.
1982, first Roland Garros title:
Despite my win in the juniors’ the previous year and my semi-final in Rome coming into the tournament, no-one thought of course, but that was all, that’s where it stopped. The pressure was on other people’s shoulders. I just did what I did best – I felt at home on clay, I never got tired and I played at the same level from the third round all the way through to the final. The fact that my level never slipped meant that my opponents must have thought that they were playing the ghost of Borg, and they couldn’t keep their emotions in check when they were confronted by this situation. They just couldn’t manage it. They were playing me but for them it must have been like facing Borg junior, with all the unpleasant memories that this brought back! Particularly for Guillermo in the final, he must have thought that he was stuck in a nightmare, reliving his defeats to Bjorn.
Roland Garros 1982 represented my scent to adulthood. I was a kid whe I arrived, but after a fortnight I’d become a man. To be exact the whirlwind started coming into the tournament. I came in from Rome where I’d lost in the semis to Andres Gomez. My coach and I drove there overnight due to an Alitalia strike so I got to Paris on the Sunday morning, just in time to hot-foot it over to Roland Garros, where I could practice on Centre Court for the first time in my life. And surprise, surprise, the player waiting for me on the other side of the net was Jimmy Connors.
I was tired, after the journey and all that, but he didn’t care. We had a hit-out for half an hour, then we played a practice set. And I took the lead and found myself 4-1 up. Suddenly Connors stopped, came towards me, and pointed at me, yelling: “You’re a fucking cocksucker!” I turned to Jan-Anders and said: “Did you hear that?” “I heard it, just ignore him!” How could I ignore it? “fucking cocksucker…” That’s how it all began – a kid being insulted by Jimmy Connors. And then, two weeks later I won Roland Garros. This tournament made me grow up double quick. There was the insult from Connors, my win over Lendl – how did I manage to beat Lendl? I didn’t think I stood a chance! My fourth round match against Ivan was the last piece of the puzzle. After that, I told myself that I could be Gerulaitis, then Clerc in the semis, and then Vilas in the final … and I won.
1983, defeat to Yannick Noah:
There were a few defeats in my career where I didn’t feel depressed afterwards. This was the case in the final of the Australian Open 1985, against Stefan Edberg. And then there was Yannick. Of course I thought that I could win. I was the best player in the world on clay at the time.
In the space of a year, from the start of Roland Garros 1982 until the final in 1983, I’d only lost two matches on the surface, so obviously I was disappointed to lose. Disappointed, but not depressed, no. Yannick, was … different. He had a passion for what he did. He was always a nice guy in the locker-room, full of smiles. He was always the one to get the players’ parties started. I later found out that we shared a love of music. He wasn’t just a tennis player – not that this stopped him from being excellent out on court. He was a cool guy. So when we bumped into each other on the night after the final in a nightclub called Le Duplex, I wasn’t sad in any way. I’d lost to a great guy. And when someone plays better than me, I don’t see what the problem is. He’d earned his victory. On the contrary: in hinsight, I learned a lot from this match and the way Yannick played on clay. Seeing him play, I understood that I couldn’t just hang back on the baseline if I wanted to win as I was neglecting too many interesting options – backhand and forehand slice, coming into the net when the opponent didn’t expect it. In a certain sense, I owe him all these things that helped me win another six Grand Slam titles, despite the fact that there was such strong competition at the time.
1985, victory over Ivan Lendl:
The 1985 French Open was perhaps my most important title. First of all in the terms of quality of the opponent I faced – Thierry Tulasne to start with, Boris Becker in the second round, Tomas Smid in the round of 16, Henri Leconte in the quarters, John McEnroe in the semis and then Lendl in the final. Such a tough draw. During the final, I totally changed my tactics for the first time ever, leaving the baseline and coming in to the net. I came to the net so many times. On clay. At the time, none of the specialists on the surface ever risked that. Maybe Victor Pecci at a push, but Pecci couldn’t play from the baseline so he had to come in. But for a player with a reputation as a solid baseliner to suddenly choose to rush into the net, on clay… It was so unexpected that it worked. I still had to wait another three years after that to win my next Grand Slam. But I’d chosen the right way to go. Ivan had become better than me at playing from the baseline. He’d started inflicting some heavy defeats on me, at Roland Garros, at the US Open… I’d lost ground and I needed to come up with something different. And it worked.
1988, victory over Henri Leconte:
In a way this was the most expected of my seven Grand Slam victories. Everyone said that I was going to beat Henri. It’s true that I was enjoying a purple patch at the time – I had already won the Australian Open at the beginning of the year and I felt that I could go on and add Roland Garros to the list. Particularly since Lendl had lost quite early in the tournament to Jonas Svensson, “Mr Drop-shot”. But I still find it difficult to analyse this final. People didn’t realise that if Henri had won the first set – and he came pretty close – there was every chance that the match would go the full five. And there, who knows, Henri was playing extremely well at the time, and even though I played a good match and was very solid throughout the three sets, Henri collapsed so spectacularly from the second set onwards that I can’t say that it was just down to me.
World number one:
From the age of 1, tennis had been the most important element in my life, but as time went by, I was driven less by the notion of pleasure than I was by victory, with the result becoming more important than the way I played. When I reached No. 1 in the world in 1988, I’d achieved my goal and I didn’t have the motivation any more to go down that road. So I decided to go back to the well and rediscover the simple pleasure of just hitting a ball and the almost childlike sensation of playing a nice point. The result was no longer the most important aspect. Personally, these years helped build me. They are an important part of my life and my career, even if that can’t be measured in the number of titles I won. I learned a lot when my status changed from start to just another player. I also had a lot of highlights, and I think that I earned people’s respect by living the same way whether I was centre stage or behind the scenes.
The last years:
My favourite memory as a player comes from that second part of my career – right at the end of my career actually. It was in 1995. I’d lost to Wayne Ferreira out on Court Suzanne Lenglen, 8-6 in the fifth. We’d played for something like five hours and I was out on my feet. And I just had to go back to the locker room, have a shower, put on another pair of shorts and a t-shirt and I was back out to play doubles with Karel Novacek. We beat Tomas Carbonell and Francisco Roig 14-12 in the third set! I was exhausted. I went back to the locker-room and there everyone got to their feet and applauded me, shouting “Well done, Mats!” I have to say that it took my breath away. A first round loss, a first round win… It didn’t matter, it was cool and it went beyond the futile notion of the result. All I remember is that unique moment where all these guys around me were congratulating “the old fellah”.
Source: Roland Garros Magazine
2003 and 2004: injuries
In 2003, I was high enough in the rankings (No. 87) for direct acceptance into the main draw but I hurt my elbow, so I had to withdraw.
In 2004, I had a bad left foot injury and I was off from April until July. This time though I came to Paris as I was invited by one of my sponsors. It was the first time that I’d been at Roland Garros. I was on crutches, but it didn’t stop me from going all the way to the top of the stands at Philippe Chatrier Court. I sat on one of the seats to the right of the court to drink in the atmosphere. It’s a fond memory for me. I was disappointed not to be able to play but deep down, I knew that sooner or later I would be able to take part in the tournament.
Tennis on clay:
Tennis on clay is the most complete expression of the sport as far as I’m concerned. The rallies are longer since the surface is slower, so you have to construct every point and implement a strategy to try to grind down your opponent. You need to be more patient, know how to defend and find a way to take control of points. And if you like this surface and feel at home on it, Roland Garros is obviously the temple of clay. It’s a unique point in the season.
2005, first Roland Garros trophy:
I’d won a lot of titles on clay – in Brazil, Acapulco, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, so I had a lot of confidence. I knew that I had the game and the strength to go deep. During the tournament, I just took one match at a time, but I knew that if I played my best, I could achieve something.
When I see myself in 2005, I see a player with an incredible energy and enormous powers of concentration. I was on such a good form. I played with real intensity and passion. I was young and I had a carefree attitude you would expect of a 19-year-old. In the final against Mariano Puerta, I knew that it would be a difficult match and that’s what it was. But I knew that anything was possible. This win will always be a key moment in my career. In the space of two months, I went from No. 50 in the world to winning Roland Garros. I handled it well in my head, because after this win, I stayed the same, I carried on working hard to keep on the right path as best I could.
It’s true that after that first win, I thought “That’s it, my dream has come true, so now the rest of my career, I will be calmer.” But I’d got it all wrong. Because each season, it was the same thing – you’re nervous, you want to win because you want to get back that indescribable feeling of emerging victorious at a Grand Slam tournament. So this feeling of calm that I thought I had got with that win turned out to be very temporary because a few months later, the tension and the desire to give it my all came back – stronger than before.
Not only the King of clay:
Winning at Roland Garros gives you the strength and the confidence to win elsewhere. Because when you start winning, you get into a virtuous circle: winning boosts your confidence, it makes you calmer, you gain more experience and it gives you a healthy dose of positive energy. Roland Garros is therefore a unique tournament in my career because it also enabled me to win on hard courts, on grass and everywhere else. In 2005, a lot of people thought that I could only play on clay, but after I won the French Open, I went on to win the Masters 1000 in Montreal and the tournament in Madrid (then played on hard courts), so I was good enough to win on other surfaces.
2008, 2012, 2014:
Lots of things have happened to me at Roland Garros. 2008 for example was the year that I was further ahead the pack than ever before. I didn’t drop a set and think that this is the tournament where I played my best tennis.
In 2014 against Novak Djokovic, it was the toughest final physically. I’d never felt that tired – at the end of the first set as well. It was very hot, humid and muggy even though it had been quite cool throughout the fortnight. My body struggled with it. I also had some fitness problems during this tournament.
In 2012, I had cortisone injections to play because my knee was hurting. Thee was another year, I forget which one, when I also needed injections, this time on my foot. But injuries and fitness issues are part and parcel of being a tennis professional. With hindsight, I can see that the injuries led to me missing some important moments and tournaments but at the same time, they allowed me to put into perspective everything that I’ve achieved.
That defeat in 2009 was a hard one to swallow, I won’t deny that, but at the same time it wasn’t a tragedy. You mustn’t blow it out of proportion. I’d won the tournament in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. And I told myself that I wasn’t going to win Roland Garros every year and that’s normal, I can actually lose, I know that, so I went home and decided to prepare as best I could to try to win it again.
It was a very special victory. Even if I didn’t drop a set this year, it wasn’t as easy as in 2008. I was coming from a long way back. 2009 was a very tough year, both personally and physically. I hurt my knee before Roland Garros then after that it was my stomach muscles during the American swing. I went through some bad times. And after all that, I came back and won Roland Garros again. I was very, very emotional, and this win was the starting point of an exceptional period because I went on to win Wimbledon and the US Open. And once again it all started at Roland Garros.
Source: Roland Garros Magazine
Following her hard-fought win over Lucie Safarova in the Roland Garros final, Serena Williams posed with her trophy in front of the Eiffel Tower for the delight of the photographs and the fans. A big thanks to Loic for the pics.