Althea Gibson

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.

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Tim Henman and Andy Murray

Andy Murray will attempt to win Wimbledon again, two years after his historic title of 2013. Former British No 1 Tim Henman talks about the game and personality of his successor.

Interview by l’Equipe, translation by Tennis Buzz

Q: Do you remember the first time you met Andy Murray?

It was during a Davis Cup tie in 2004, we were playing against Luxembourg. He had a knee injury, but he was there as a drawer of water. He was only 16 years old but he looked and listened everything, he was very interested in what was happening in training. He immersed himself in the atmosphere.

Q: And the first time you played him?

It was in La Manga, Spain, where we were training before a Davis Cup tie. Even though he was still very young and we were playing at a different level than his own, he had time, he was not under pressure and we knew then that he was going to be really good.

Q: You were one of his early role models, was he intimidated?

He had seen me play a lot and he was probably surprised how relaxed I was and how I liked to have fun off the court. We got along well, we made jokes, we played backgammon during rain interruptions. We had many things in common, and especially we both knew he was about to take over as British number one.

Q: He says you’ve been like a big brother for him, did you feel some kind of responsability towards him?

It was not really a responsibility, but I liked him. I thought that with my experience there were some areas in which I could help. When I arrived on the circuit, I trained a lot with Jeremy Bates, who was British No 1 at the time. Just to see him and be around him helped me to break barriers, to be accepted on the circuit. We trained a bit together, we went out to dinner and we talked about many different things.

Q: When you’re the British number one, you’re always on the spotlight. Which advice did you give him?

It was more related to life on the circuit, how to handle different aspects such as the media, sponsors, practices. On this stuff, the ball was always in his camp. When you’re British No. 1, you’re always on the spotlight, a lot of people want to give their opinion. In fact, I did not want to give him more reviews. I just wanted to give him some advices only when he asked me to.

Q: Do you remember the first official match you played against each other?

He beat me, but it should have been much easier for him that day (smile). It was the first round of the Basel tournament in 2005. He ended up beating me 7-6 in the third set. It was the kind of player I did not like playing. When I gave him a possibility, he was very good to pass me or force me to make a low volley and then pick me on the second ball with a great lob. I still try to remind him that I beat him in the last game we played together in 2006 in Bangkok (smile).

Q: How would you describe his personality?

He has a very dry sense of humor. He is stubborn. And he is honest.

Q: Like you before him, Andy has to face huge media and public pressure as British number one. Did you advise him on this subject too?

When he was young and began to attract media attention, I told him not to read everything that was written in the press and focus on the work he has to do. And to be honest, he did not (laughs). For a long time, he read what people wrote about him and he was influenced by it. That’s not a problem when you are on the rise and they write nice things. But when things start to go wrong, there are criticisms and he was frustrated. Sometimes he probably tried to fight against that. But it’s a learning process. Today he is much more mature, he understands how things work, he has the experience and manages it all very well.

Q: Why is it so hard to be the British No. 1?

There’s sometimes a disproportionate amount of attention. As Wimbledon is the largest and the world’s best tournament there is a lot of interest in the sport in the country, but we have very few good players. That’s the advantage you have in France, there is more depth while here there is huge attention on one player. It was me during my career, and today it’s Andy. It takes time getting used to it.

Q: How did it materialize at your time?

I realized it soon enough. It’s probably when I was disqualified at Wimbledon in 1995. I was the first player in 125 years to be disqualified at Wimbledon. And it was a very fast learning. I got destroyed by the media and I realized that I needed to have good results to make sure that people would not remember me just for that. I also realized that I had to get control of things that I could control. And everything that was said in the press, on TV, I could not control it. I could not help it, and from that day I very rarely read the newspapers.

Q: At one point in his career, when he could not win Grand Slam tournaments, Andy Murray was labeled as a loser, like you…

He did not mean to lose four Grand Slam finals in a row, but when we look at it closer, he lost against Federer and Djokovic, two of the best players of all time. And this 28-day period between the final of Wimbledon 2012 where he lost against Federer and showed so much emotion and winning the London Olympics on the same court against the same opponent, it was a turning point in his relationship with the British public. They really understood what it meant to him and how hard he worked.

Q: What was the role of Ivan Lendl to help him take that step?

Ivan played a huge role in Andy’s development of Andy and his success, and I believe that the symmetry between their careers was incredible. Lendl lost four Grand Slam finals before winning one and Andy was in the same boat. Lendl helped him keep believing he could win these big tournaments.

Q: You were here, in the commentary box, when he won in 2013

The expectation around the match was so huge, it was the seventh day of the seventh month, 77 years after Fred Perry last won… The excitement was huge and when the match took place, the seven first games lasted incredibly long time, in stifling heat. The first set was crucial. Andy never gave up, his tenacity and performance were absolutely incredible.

Q: How did you feel during this famous last game, when he served for the match?

Andy served from the side which was right outside our box. When he was 15-0, we said one done, just three more points, back to simple things. Then it was 30-0 and 40-0, he has three match points, it will be the right time! But this game kept going for another 10 or 12 minutes. The pressure, nervousness there was everywhere was unbearable.

Q: Andy Murray has a very complete game. Which are his strengths in your opinion?

He has many. His groundstrokes are fantastic. His athletic abilities are sometimes underestimated, the way he moves, his anticipation, the way he plays the game. I think the variety of his game is another strong point. He is able to change the pace a lot. He uses well his backhand slice. He is very comfortable at the net. His play at the net is underestimated. Above all, he is able to change the game in terms of style according to the situation and it is very rare. When you have only one style of play, it is easier to work on it and continue to improve your game, but it also makes you a bit limited. He has different aspects, more variety. It took him a little longer to understand his assets and use them, but nowadays we see the best of Andy Murray.

Q: And his weaknesses?

Fortunately, he still has plenty of them. When he plays badly, his first serve percentage decreases and his second serve is a bit vulnerable. The service is a crucial aspect, and that’s something he’s working on a lot. From the baseline, when he dictates play and he is aggressive, that is where he is at his best. When he gets on the defensive, he reacts, steps back and his opponent dictates the game, he must run and is struggling. He must find the balance between attack and defense, and recently he has found it.

Q: Does the Big Four still exist?

For me, yes, no doubt. Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic rankings inside the top 4 change, but when we look at how they dominated the biggest tournaments, all the Grand Slam semifinals they played, the number of Grand Slams and Masters 1000 won, they are still the players to beat. Djokovic is the head of this group today.

Q: You were one of the last serve and volley players. What do you think about the state of net play in today’s tennis?

There are no serve and volley players anymore, it’s sad but that’s the way the game has evolved. On hard courts, grass or indoor, the surfaces are slower, the conditions generally are slower. It is also about the way the players move. Returns of serve are better, faster and stronger, which reduce the opportunities to come to the net. If you come to the net today you must be even more effective than before. It is reflected in the way the players have changed at the junior level. Less coaches how to volley well. Many players today don’t have the correct grip position.

Q: Can you give us your top 5 of best players at the net?

Looking at the Top 100, I have trouble answering the question “who is the best volley player?” Some players volley quite well like Andy Murray, Feliciano Lopez and Radek Stepanek. But none of these players would be back in the Top 20 or Top 30 of best volley players some years ago. Will it come back? I doubt it.

Photo: Henman and Murray, 2013, Getty images

Also read:
Tim Henman disqualified at Wimbledon and follow our Wimbledon coverage.

Steffi Graf GrandSlam

Interview by Philippe Maria for l’Equipe, June 6, 2015, 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.  

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.

Alison Van Uytvanck

It seems that every year a relatively unknown player reaches the second week of Roland Garros. This year this player is Alison Van Uytvanck. After wins over Anna Schmiedlova, Zarina Diyas and Kristina Mladenovic, she’s through to her first Grand Slam fourth round.

Aged 21, she won her maiden WTA title in Taipei in 2013, and reached her best ranking (73) in September last year. She is coached by former top Belgian player Ann Devries.

Kim Clijsters and Dominique Monami congratulated her on twitter:

Alison Van Uytvanck

Alison Van Uytvanck

Alison Van Uytvanck

Alison Van Uytvanck

Alison is the last Belgian standing at Roland Garros, as David Goffin lost to Jérémy Chardy yesterday. We wish her good luck for her next match against another surprising player, Andreea Mitu ranked 99.

Follow our Roland Garros 2015 coverage on Tennis Buzz and check out tennis-belge.be for more news on Belgian Tennis.

Coria, Vilas, Gaudio at Roland Garros 2004

From Tennis Confidential II by Paul Fein:

If 1970s champion Guillermo Vilas is a god in Argentina, Guillermo Coria is the current people’s choice. He’s so beloved in his homeland that when he appears in restaurants he gets standing ovations? Ironically he’s far less popular with other players, including his fellow countrymen whom he nearly always (23-5) beats. Coria has been known to mock his opponents after he wins and seldom, until recently, gives them credit when he loses.

Like oil and water, Coria and Gaston Gaudio will never mix. They are too different. They come from different family backgrounds, and they have different approaches to tennis and life. Like Andre Agassi, Coria was pressured since he was bon to be the greatest tennis player of this generation. His dad, a tennis coach, named him after Vilas; the cake for one of his first birthdays was racquet-shaped; and he has played tournaments since he was too young to remember. Gaudio enjoyed football and rugby in his childhood, and only picked up tennis because his older brother was playing it at the same time. He discovered he liked it and was good at it. Gaudio decided to turn pro only after his father had a heart attack and his family experienced money problems: he thought tennis could be an excellent way of making money to help his family.

Like Connors, Coria needs and feeds on the rivalries, the feuds to feel his competitiveness. His anger pushes him. He looks for other players to beat. Only someone with a superiority complex would rent a hotel for the anticipated victory celebrations before the 2004 French Open final, as Coria did. Lo and behold, he lost to heavy underdog, No. 44-ranked Gaudio, who was so shocked that he confided,

“I don’t know how I win. I can’t believe it yet. This is like a movie for me. And I don’t even know it, but I’m the star.”

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