New book puts fresh spin on black tennis

When I heard that Cecil Harris had another book on black tennis coming out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Once I did, I was not disappointed.

The 243-page book, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution, was everything I had hoped for and pleasantly more. Harris puts a contemporary spin on black tennis history, leading with Serena and Venus Williams and the impact they have had on the game.

The author gracefully transitions from the Williams sisters to the trailblazing stories of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson to the endurance of the American Tennis Association, the nation’s oldest existing black sports organization, to the business side of tennis in which blacks have several ceilings yet to crack.

If you’re tired of watching old movies or Tennis Channel reruns while cooped up at home during this coronavirus outbreak, reading Harris’s book could be a culturally enriching way to break through the boredom.

Now you might ask why I so eagerly awaited the book, released appropriately enough on Feb. 1, the start of Black History Month. The answer is I had become a big fan of his first book on black tennis: Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.

But that book was published in 2007, long before Serena became just one major title shy of the all-time record. It was before Venus was diagnosed with an energy-zapping disease, before Sloane Stephens became the fifth African- American to win a Grand Slam singles event, before James Blake became the first black director of an ATP tournament, before Katrina Adams became the first black to lead the United States Tennis Association, before the rise of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, and before the United States Tennis Association was slapped with another racial discrimination lawsuit by a black umpire.

In Different Strokes…Harris updates black tennis history while illuminating the global iconic status the Williams sisters have attained with 30 major singles titles between them – 23 for Serena, seven for Venus – and another 14 as a doubles team.

Along with becoming superstars, the sisters became rich. Harris refers to a 2018 Forbes Magazine list that estimated Serena’s net worth at $225 million as of June 2019, while Venus’s net worth was $95 million.

But perhaps more impressive than their personal achievements, Harris suggests, is the impact the Williams sisters have had on how the women’s game is played.

“When Venus and Serena became dominant at the dawn of the twenty-first century, they sent an unmistakable message to their on-court rivals: get stronger and fitter, or step aside,” Harris writes. “Thanks to the Williams sisters, women’s tennis is played at a higher level of athleticism than ever before.”

serena-and-venus-ao
Venus and Serena made history with their 2017 grand slam showdown in Australia.

I spoke to Harris, a sports journalist and author who lives in Yonkers, NY, about what compelled him to write a second book on black tennis. He said he wanted to update his earlier book, as well as provide some new insights.

“I wanted to bring out…how Venus paved the way for Serena,” Harris said. He explained that as the older of the two, Venus was a buffer between Serena and racial hostility. He singled out the 1997 U.S Open semi-final match in which Romanian player Irina Spirlea intentionally bumped Venus, then later made a vulgar, derisive reference about Venus to reporters.

“I also wanted to bring up the story of how Venus led the way for equal pay,” Harris said.

In a chapter on Venus, winner of five Wimbledon and two U.S. Open titles, Harris recalls the pivotal role she played in the fight for equal pay for women at Wimbledon.

“It is part of her legacy now – her sixth triumph at Wimbledon,” Harris writes.

Part of both Venus’s and Serena’s legacy is the depth of black players on the WTA tour, Harris says. Among them are 2017 U.S. Open Champion Sloane Stephens, 2017 U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys and Sachia Vickery, who have become WTA veterans, as well rising young stars Coco Gauff and Whitney Osuigwe, both of whom were French Open junior champions.

But the success of the Williams sisters also “has overshadowed a slow road to progress for blacks on the business side of tennis,” Harris writes. Blacks “are still woefully underrepresented,” he says, in every aspect of the business side a sport that generates $5.57 billion a year.

Harris notes the $350 million the 2018 U.S. Open generated was the most of any tennis event in history, and the two-week tournament rakes in more revenue for New York City than any other sports event.

That may explain, Harris argues, why local leaders seem reluctant to address racial discrimination charges by black umpires accusing the USTA of denying them opportunities to advance and officiate the biggest matches, such as the U.S. Open singles championships.

Harris shares the story of Tony Nimmons, a black umpire described by USTA.com in 2011 as “one of the best in the business.” Nimmons was fired in 2016 after filing a lawsuit accusing the USTA of racial discrimination. It was the second time in a decade, the association had been slapped with such a complaint. The first was settled out of court.

Nimmons was fired a year after Katrina Adams became the first black president and chief executive officer of the organization that had long barred blacks from playing in its events.

“Unfortunately, Adams did not appear to be in position to rectify the USTA’s problem of discrimination against African American umpires,” Harris writes. “While she was the public face of the association, she did not run the actual day-to-day operation.”

I reached out to Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis Museum and president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, for his assessment of Harris’s book. He applauded Harris for the work he’s been doing but added he felt the book fell short on the unfinished portion of the black tennis revolution.

“I like the book,” Davis said. “I don’t know that he closed it.”

Harris’s book ends with the 2018 U.S. Open final between Serena and Naomi Osaka, a controversy-marred match in which Osaka denied Serena a 24th major crown that would have tied her with Margaret Court for the most ever. It was a match Osaka had dreamed about since she was a child. Harris points out that Osaka’s emulation of her idol extended even to how she wore her hair.

One area I wish Harris had given more attention is the decline of tennis at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But perhaps that’s a subject for another book. For now, this one deserves a spot on every tennis fan’s bookshelf or coffee table.

Other books by Cecil Harris:

Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey

Call the Yankees My Daddy: Reflections on Baseball, Race and Family

 

 

 

 


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