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Advantage Tennis: Improving Game's Racial Disparity

Serena Williams, left, and Venus Williams compete in Wimbledon at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Elise Amendola
Serena Williams, left, and Venus Williams compete in Wimbledon at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Venus and Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens and Donald Young will be among those vying for Grand Slam Glory at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which start Monday at Flushing Meadows in New York.

Those four are the only African-Americans who rank among the top 100 men's and women's players in the country at this stage. Some tennis enthusiasts say the game has got to do better than that – and they are working at the grassroots to level the playing ground.

Take the nonprofit Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, which gives free tennis lessons to kids, while providing academic help and all-around mentoring.

"We are really trying to improve the life of minority kids and poor kids in the city," says Program Director Willis Thomas. "Most of our programs are in wards that have a lack of a lot of opportunities, especially in tennis."

Bob Davis, president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, played junior doubles with Arthur Ashe. He recalls the discrimination he faced.

"Back in the days of my junior experience, you could enter a tournament and once they got a look at you and found out that you were of color or black, they would just simply deny access to your entry," he says. "You just couldn't play."

Although the sport has come a long way since then, Davis says many minorities are still being left behind. Between training and tournaments, getting good comes at a high cost.

Donald Young is the only African-American man in the top 100 tennis players in the U.S.
Lionel Cironneau / AP
Donald Young is the only African-American man in the top 100 tennis players in the U.S.

"You're looking at $40,[000] or $50,[000] or $60[000] or $100,000 a year to be a competitive junior tennis player," Davis says. "How many minority families where the average income is around $35,000 can afford that?"

The U.S. Tennis Association, the national governing body of the sport, is working to diversify the game: It's giving out grants and introducing programs to underserved areas.

"We want to make tennis look like America when it comes to cultural backgrounds," Vice President Katrina Adams says.

But Adams notes being introduced to the sport and getting to the professional level are two different things.

"There is a lot of education that has to be put forth in a grassroots level so that the kids and the parents alike understand what it takes to excel in the sport," she says.

WTEF's Thomas says creating pro players isn't the group's focus.

"Our measure of success is they become good taxpaying citizens," he says. "We want them to go to college. We're not interested in them being tennis champions. If one comes along, fine."

He says tennis instills valuable attributes in the kids, "thinking for yourself and being able to count on yourself to persevere. We hope they take that to the classroom."

Charrisha Watkins was introduced to the WTEF at age 4, on a field trip. She liked the game and kept at it. It helped get her into a private high school, where she excelled on the team. At age 20, she's now a student at Gettysburg College.

When asked where she would be if she hadn't gotten involved with the WTEF and tennis she says, "I don't know. It's like my second home. It's like everything that I do kind of like ties to them, somehow."

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Amy Held is an editor on the newscast unit. She regularly reports breaking news on air and online.