by Larry Bivins
I was almost 20 years old when I first picked up a tennis racquet to play. Today, at 67, I am a tennis junkie, and I deeply regret I was not exposed to the sport as a kid growing up in inner-city Cleveland.
While interest in tennis has expanded throughout America since the mid-1950s, access remains largely exclusive to the suburbs. This blog is part of my mission to help spawn the growth of tennis in communities of color everywhere, particularly in the nation’s inner cities.
To be honest, my addiction to tennis came gradually, as I had to first overcome a lingering love for basketball. There were no tennis courts in my neighborhood back in the day. Nor were there any highly visible black tennis stars with whom I could identify. So there was little inspiration or incentive for tennis.
There was a gym, however. I grew up next door to a recreation center, watched as it was built, in fact. When it opened, I was captivated by what I saw in the gym — older boys dribbling at breakneck speed up and down a hardwood court, stopping on a dime, changing directions, passing what looked like a medicine ball among one another, jumping and flicking the ball in mid-air toward an orange cylinder with a nylon string attached.
So I grew up adoring basketball and wound up playing on my junior high and high school teams. I also played sandlot baseball and playground football. Tennis was never even a thought.
But when my best friend in Cleveland introduced me to the sport in the summer of 1969, a year after I graduated high school, it turned out to be the beginning of a new love affair.
I no longer play basketball, as all those early years of pounding on unforgiving surfaces have taken a toll on my knees and hips. But I’m playing the best tennis of my life — this after having two hip replacements!
I love this sport, and I often wonder what would have happened had there been tennis courts next door. (The city did install a couple years later, but they no longer exist.) I wonder how many of us inner-city kids would have gravitated toward tennis. Would I have experienced the same awe-inspiring sensation I felt in the gym had I seen older black boys popping deadly accurate serves, hitting wicked slice returns or blistering topspin forehands on a tennis court?
Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. The point is I never had the option. And that’s what I hope to address with this blog, using the reporting and writing skills developed during a 30-plus career as a former journalist.
This blog will be a constant drumbeat for making tennis as much a mainstream sport in inner-city neighborhoods as is basketball and football. I intend to highlight people of color who are having success in the sport at all levels. I plan to pay tribute to those who are making strides in bringing tennis to communities where it has been absent.
I want to explore some of the issues underlying the dearth of black American males in the upper echelons of professional players on tour. I want to give voice to local legends and everyday club players who want to share why they love this sport.
Ultimately, I hope my passion for tennis permeates communities of color. I want to shatter the myth that tennis is an elitist sport. There is a deep, rich history of tennis among African Americans, and I want to illuminate significant chapters.
I want to spark an enduring enthusiasm for what is widely considered a sport for a lifetime. Tennis has numerous mental, physical and spiritual benefits, many of which I plan to bring to light. It is an activity that can be enjoyed by the entire family.
I invite you to join me on this pursuit. I invite you to comment — albeit civilly and with respect for differences of opinion. I invite you to become a part of a movement to spread this sport we love so much into neighborhoods all across America.