I recently had the privilege of moderating an online panel discussion on the history of black tennis and the American Tennis Association, the nation’s oldest black sports organization. The 90-minute Zoom webinar attracted an engaging audience, with participants sending in comments and/or questions for the distinguished guests.
I got goose bumps being in the company of such black tennis luminaries as Katrina Adams, former WTA star and two-time president of the United States Tennis Association; Willis Thomas Jr., former ATA president and tennis coach; Lange Johnson, grandson of Dr. Robert (Whirlwind) Johnson, considered the Godfather of black tennis; Art Carrington, former ATA National Men’s Singles Champion and black tennis historian; and Bob Davis, president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, a former multiple ATA doubles champion and founder of the Black Tennis Museum.
Yet, as thrilled as I was to be in a discussion with these black tennis titans, I was equally excited to be kicking off the ATA’s weeklong virtual conference called For the Love of Tennis in partnership with the USTA.
The webinar was held in lieu of the organization’s 2020 national tournament that was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a wonderful example of using modern technology to stay relevant at a time when the virus has forced all of us to adapt to a more restrictive lifestyle branded as the new normal.
Over a five-day span (July 20-24), the ATA crammed in six informative and entertaining 90-minute sessions that included 32 panelists and moderators. There was a discussion of the struggles young black male players encounter in trying to climb the ATP rankings as well as earn a living; a session in which former WTA tennis champions Leslie Allen, Zina Garrison, Kyle Copeland and Kim Sands talked about their sisterhood on tour during the pre-Venus and Serena Williams era; a session in which HBCU coaches William Crutchfield of North Carolina A&T University, Gene Thompson of Virginia State University, George Henry of Bethune-Cookman University and Lonnie White of Coastal Carolina University talked about the difficulty in maintaining tennis programs at HBCUs.
There was even a session in which a panel of black medical and psychological experts discussed ways to cope with the rigors and stresses of a competitive tennis life, particularly during a pandemic.
The final session featured Black Tennis Hall of Fame founder Dale Caldwell and author Cecil Harris sharing their insights and knowledge in discussing the future of black tennis.
One thread that seemed to show up throughout the series was the depth of passion for the ATA. Some of the attendee comments were posted on the ATA’s website. http://www.yourata.com
“I loved hearing the stories of the history of tennis straight from the people who lived them,” one attendee said about the session I moderated.
“Great ideas discussed about growing the sport more in the African American community,” said another attendee on the session about the future of black tennis.
ATA President Roxanne Aaron deemed the event a success beyond what she had imagined when she envisioned hosting a virtual conference and called on Deanne Chevannes, president of Focused LLC, a strategic management company, to help put the plan in action.
The series drew more than 2,000 new visitors to the refreshed ATA website and 1,100 registrants to the sessions. The ATA posted each session on its website afterward and provided a link to everyone who had registered.
Aaron said the webinar reflects a revitalization effort by the organization, driven by a new mission statement adopted after she was elected president in 2018. She said her goal is to make the ATA a more viable and visible element of the tennis community, more than just the host for an annual national tournament.
“We were acting like we were a fly-by-night organization,” Aaron said. “I wanted to stop just being a national tournament. We should be a resource for all other entities.”
Chevannes, whose tennis-playing daughter was the subject of one of my blogs, said she is committed to helping the ATA rebrand and rebuild. She said she hopes to help boost fundraising through her contacts with the philanthropic community.
The goal, she said, is to increase ATA membership and grow the sport of tennis.
“We go back and forth on how to get more people involved in tennis, but the key is parents,” Chevannes said. “I think we’re getting people to see what we’re trying to do through the webinars, and we’ll do more of them.”
If you have not visited the ATA website lately, take a tour. It has been pleasantly upgraded by Rocky Warner, the organization’s communications chairman and president of the southern section.
I have also seen an uptick in communications from the organization, as it attempts to keep its members abreast of the latest happenings within the ATA and the tennis world at large.
Katrina Adams applauded the ATA’s webinar series and said she believes the organization is on the right track with its renewed outreach.
“I thought the ATA did a tremendous job with engaging as many people as they did,” she told me via email. “I see they are making a gallant effort in getting more messaging out. Rebranding is key to rebuilding and if the ATA can engage the millennials, they will have a great chance of exceeding their expectations.”