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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Venus Williams Wimbledon dress

Venus Williams Wimbledon dress

Follow our Wimbledon 2015 coverage.

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Venus Williams Roland Garros 2015 dress

Venus Williams Roland Garros 2015 dress

Venus Williams Roland Garros 2015 dress

Follow our Roland Garros 2015 coverage on Tennis Buzz.

Mary Pierce, Roland Garros 2000

By Alan Tengrove, Australian Tennis magazine, July 2000:

A new Mary Pierce, more complete as a person and a tennis player, achieved an “impossible dream” at a dramatic French Open.

There were good reasons for Mary Pierce‘s self-pity. A father she loved, but who mistreated her in his obsession to make her a champion. A nervous temperament that often brought her undone. A part-French background that caused her more anguish than joy because she failed to live up to the expectations of a public thirsting for glory.

All changed at Roland Garros when Pierce, the No. 6 seed, became the first French woman to win he national championship since Françoise Durr in 1967. At last she did justice to her considerable talent. She out-hit three-time champion Monica Seles in a quarter-final, tipped out top seed Martina Hingis in a semi, and out-classed fifth seed Conchita Martinez 6-2 7-5 in the final.

With a partially disabled Lindsay Davenport upset in the first round, and an under-prepared Venus Williams eliminated by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (who later lost to Martinez), there was no doubt Pierce deserved the title. Just as she did the doubles title shared with Hingis. At 25, and in her 11th year as a professional, she played the finest tennis of her career.

It seemed so much more than six years ago that she reached her first French Open final after surprising Steffi Graf. Then, a bundle of nerves, she was no match for Sanchez Vicario.

Seven months later, when she beat Sanchez Vicario in the Australian Open final, anything seemed possible. France hoped she would inherit Graf’s throne, but year after year Pierce was disappointing. For five years she failed to pass the fourth round at Roland Garros. She flopped at other French tournaments.
Her former fans felt let down, were irritated by her mannerisms, and turned against her, teating her with derision. She was overshadowed by younger players, such as Hingis, the Williams sisters and Davenport. And three years ago, disenchanted, she stopped representing her adopted country in the Fed Cup.

To win the French Open was her dream – an impossible dream, it had seemed.

“Everything that’s happened here in the past, everything that I’ve been through, there’s just so many emotions that attach to this tournament,” she said after heer unexpected triumph. “to win is amazing.”

She was 13 when her American father became dissatisfied with the attitude of the USTA and decided to move the family to France, where her mother was born. Pierce hated to leave her school and friends in Florida, but had no choice.
In Paris she was separated from her family and lived in a dormitory at Roland Garros.

“I couldn’t speak French. I didn’t know anybody? I didn’t have any friends and I was by myself,” she recalled. “It was really tough. I probably cried every night, trying to fall asleep. It was tough practicing.”

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Jennifer Capriati

By Bruce Schoenfeld, Tennis Magazine (November/December 2004)

At 28, Jennifer Capriati knows her days are numbered. Following a dramatic but disappointing run to the US Open semifinals, her hopes of another major victory now rest on the 2005 Australian Open.

Jennifer Capriati had been crying. Her red-rimmed eyes gave her away as she stepped into the interview room in Arthur Ashe stadium after her semifinal loss to Elena Dementieva at the US Open. Usually so calm, so cautious, so media-trained, she couldn’t help but offer a glimpse into her soul.

Who could blame her? It was all so unfair. She’d fought so hard against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, doing what she had to do to win, only to have it undermined by that silly controversy about the umpire’s overrule. For two days, it was all she saw on television, the ball landing near the line and Serena striding toward the chair. Didn’t they have anything else to talk about? Lying in bed at night, she replayed the point over and over, like a bad song she couldn’t get out of her head. Then, against Dementieva, she had found herself a game away from finally reaching a US Open final after all these years. And wouldn’t you know it? The wind was swirling, the sun was in her eyes, and suddenly she was out of the Open again, facing a press conference like so many others.

She’d squandered her fist opportunity, in 1991, as a 15-year-old, losing a memorable semifinal match to Monica Seles in a third-set tiebreaker that would haunt Capriati for years. A decade later, in 2001, she reached another semifinal, this time losing to Venus Williams in straight sets. And then last year she’d served for the match in the semis against Justine Henin-Hardenne but couldn’t close it out. This year’s semifinal against Dementieva, who was floating seves of 60 mph and slower across the net, presented her best chance, and possibly her last.

“I was just thinking, Play the wind the best you can,” she murmured. “I guess I waited for her maybe to make a few more errors. I mean, I can’t really…” She trailed off. “I don’t know.”

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Surviving stardom

Jennifer Capriati

By Cindy Hahn, Tennis Magazine, October 1992:

Jennifer Capriati, her ankles still encrusted with the red clay of Il Foro Italico, faces a den of crass, middle-aged sportswriters. One, an Italian journalist, will write a story tomorrow whose headline screams that she looks like a pig. The 16-year-old, sweat-soaked and exhausted, hasn’t yet suffered that cruelty, and good thing, for her heart aches enough: She has just lost in a miserable, third-round match at the Italian Open – to a player ranked 25 spots below her. Her eyes swim with tears.

A cool shower – and time alone to soothe her anguish – might have made this post-match grilling less painful. But at her father’s command, Capriati was shuttled from the Campo Centrale directly into the interview room… Do not shower, do not pass go, do not change into you favorite Grateful Dead tie-dyed T-shirt. After all, Diadora is paying Capriati several million dollars to be seen in its tennis togs. Better for her to appear before the TV cameras as a disheveled Diadora girl than as a freshly scrubbed heavy metal-head – the identity Capriati currently prefers.

“Do you think you lost because you’re overweight?”

an Italian reporter asks.
Capriati cannot hear the interrogator and asks him to repeat the question. softening his query, the reporter responds: “Do you think you lost because you’re not in good physical condition?” But Capriati suddenly compehends his original question: He has announced before a roomful of international journalists that she is … fat. New tears glisten on her eyelids as her face flushes crimson.
Mercifully, another question is asked. Capriati concentrates hard, trying to block out the notion that she is fat. The moment of tears, of truth, passes.
When the press conference ends, Capriati retreats through a door into the locker room, where she collapses onto a bench and drops her head to her hands. More moments, more tears. There was no time for a shower, but there is time for tears.

This isolated scene, played out this past May, poignantly dramatizes the tragedy of pro tennis in any season: A parent placing mercenary interests before the emotional needs of his child; a girl forced to answer to uncaring adults; and a teenager’s private problems, such as weight gain, showcased as a media event. Threaded together, these plot lines form a disturbing, if familiar, story in professional tennis.

This report is not about a person but a process; it does not focus on a single star but rather on the constellation of problems in a system that embraces talented children, and then exhausts them. Capriati is just one of the handful of tennage pros whose gifts have launched them on a shuttle-ride to success: Michael Chang, French Open at 17 … Boris Becker, Wimbledon winner at 17 … Andre Agassi, Nike’s multi-millionnaire celebrity at 18 … Steffi Graf, at 19 only the fifth person to win the Grand Slam … Pete Sampras, handed a $2 million winner’s check at 19 … Gabriela Sabatini, a 15-year-old French Open semifinalist … and Monica Seles, the youngest world No.1 at 17.

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