US Open draw raises eyebrows, questions

If you had asked me before the start of this year’s US Open tennis tournament if I thought a teenager had a shot at winning the women’s title, I would have answered enthusiastically without hesitation in the affirmative.

But neither Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old Brit who won it, nor Leylah Fernandez, the 19-year-old Canadian who was runner-up, was who I had in mind.

I would have put my money on Cori “Coco” Gauff, the 17-year-old American sensation who had been having a stellar year, capturing her second singles title since turning pro in 2018 and her third doubles championship with American partner Caty McNally. (The duo reached their first major final at this year’s US Open.)

But Coco, the highest ranking American in the draw, was sent packing in the second round by fellow American Sloane Stephens, who had knocked out another American, Madison Keys, in the first round. All three women are Black, and therein lies the story – or mystery, if you will – of the 2021 US Open for Black tennis fans.

Many are questioning how three top-ranked African Americans on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, could wind up having to play one another so early in the tournament? Even more curious was the fact that the only two African-American men, Frances Tiafoe and Chris Eubanks, among the 128 male players wound up facing each other in the first round.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 01: Cori Gauff of the United States returns the ball against Sloane Stephens of the United States during her Women’s Singles second round match on Day Three of the 2021 US Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 01, 2021 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

I first got a rumbling of suspicion when one of my tennis hitting buddies sent me a text on opening day asking if I thought it unusual that so many blacks were playing each other. I had seen the draw and knew where he was going.

I did think it was odd that Keys and Stephens, who four years earlier had met in the finals, with Stephens winning the trophy, would be squaring off in the first round. But I shrugged it off as an unfortunate freak coincidence.

I told my buddy, “The draw is what it is.”

Then, a day before the finals, I received a short essay via email written by Robert W. Johnson III, grandson of the legendary Dr. Robert W. (Whirlwind) Johnson, in collaboration with his brother Lange Johnson and William Crutchfield, head tennis coach at North Carolina A&T University.

The piece was titled “The History of the Black Draw.”

Bobby Johnson recalled what his grandfather, who coached Black tennis pioneers Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe and is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, would encounter when he entered his players in junior tournaments during the 1950s.

“When his teams arrived at some tournaments, there were two draws in one: a white draw, and one for Negroes, the ‘black draw,'” Bobby wrote. “It was created to protect white tournaments from forced integration and (was) the quickest, most effective way to eliminate Black players from a white tournament. The black players would beat up on each other in this special draw…and the last one standing would finally succumb to a white player.”

At that point, I decided to look a deeper into the 2021 US Open draw. There were five African American women – Hailey Baptiste, Coco Gauff, Madison Keys, Alycia Parks and Sloane Stephens – among the 23 Americans who made the tournament’s main draw. All but Baptiste wound up in the same section. Tiafoe and Eubanks, a qualifier, were among the 21 Americans in the men’s draw.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 05: Frances Tiafoe of the United States returns against Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada during his Men’s Singles round of 16 match on Day Seven at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 05, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

In his essay, Bobby Johnson found it “strange that a cluster of three were in the same quarter,” in reference to Keys, Stephens and Gauff. “Luck or coincidence?”

Johnson noted that after dispatching Keys and Gauff, Stephens “had little steam left to beat Angelique Kerber in round three…That is the purpose behind the ‘black draw,’ to eliminate the black players.”

Robert (Bob) Davis, founder of the Black Tennis History Museum and president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, remembers the “black draw” well.  

“Back in the day it was an effective way of ridding the draw of talented Black players,” Davis, who trained on the courts Dr. J had built outside his home in Lynchburg, Va., told me via email.

As for the 2021 US Open draw, Davis, said: “I won’t contend it was intentional, but it smells to high heaven.”

Frankly, I find it hard to believe the USTA would manipulate the draw to dilute the pool of black players, particularly a year after the so-called racial reckoning that swept the country in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. The USTA was among several organizations and a host of corporations that publicly reaffirmed their commitment to racial diversity within their respective arenas.

On the other hand, I understand why some Blacks would be suspicious. It is a classic example of how long-term past discrimination has bred longstanding distrust. It is the same thing we see in the reluctance by some in our community to get vaccinated amid the coronavirus pandemic.

I contacted Roxanne Aaron, president of the American Tennis Association, the black tennis organization founded in 1916, to see if there had been any buzz among members about this year’s US Open draw.

Aaron confirmed she had heard from quite a few expressing concern and that she had asked USTA CEO and Executive Director Michael Dowse for an explanation.  

In a statement sent out to the ATA membership on Sept. 24, Aaron included Dowse’s response.

“As for the question on the placement of black players in the USO draw, this is very frustrating to us as well from both our D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives as well as trying to get as many American players as possible deep in the draws,” Dowse said.

Dowse added that an independent Grand Slam Supervisor presides over the draw and that the USTA is not directly involved.

Aaron’s statement also included a response from USTA chief spokesman Chris Widmaier who said the draw selection is random and automated with “no human interference in this process whatsoever.”

I also reached out to Katrina Adams, the first Black and former player to serve as president of the USTA. She, too, vouched for the fairness of the draw, saying it would be virtually impossible to rig the matchups because of the number of people representing the various tennis organizations and the media monitoring the process.  

“Long gone are the days of draws being fixed,” said Adams, who also is the only person to serve two consecutive terms as president.

Adams recalled that one year under her watch Serena and Venus Williams, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend all wound up in the same quarter of the draw.

“I was mortified,” she said, “but it’s the luck of the draw. It truly is the luck of the draw, and the more players of color that we have playing, the more often they will be drawn against each other early in the tournament.

“Since 1988 when I was on tour, I have witnessed more than enough professional draws to know that the system is fair.”

Nevertheless, tell that to some of the Blacks I play with and you are likely to get an askance look followed by a “Yeah, right.”

Such doubtful sentiment is also reflected in the closing words of Bobby Johnson’s essay:

“White tournament directors called it a coincidence too when granddad challenged the statistical improbability of the draw his juniors were playing in,” he wrote. “History has repeated itself in 2021.”

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