- Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters
Beginning with the Williams sisters, researchers Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-DeBose examine the foundation of their development as tennis phenoms during the 1990s and the prophetic yet unabashed approach of their coach, father, and sports psychologist, Richard Williams, in crafting a world within which they would be groomed to be successful. Richard Williams' philosophy for success both on the court and off helped to prepare his daughters for what to expect from their opponents, spectators, and officials in what had been traditionally a lily-white environment, where blacks had been unwelcome (unless they were servants). Harris and Kyle-DuBose argue that early in her career, Venus Williams was able to demonstrate her ability to overcome the adversity found in the sport for change agents like she and her predecessors. "Venus had shown Serena, indeed every black person," Harris and Kyle-DuBose write, "what the possibilities were, even in a sport as unwelcoming as tennis" (p. 17). Tested by players and officials who felt that their access to "white skin privilege" was being diminished by the presence of the hyper-competitive extremely successful duo, the Williams sisters refused to be what most in the country club settings expected them to be: stereotypical definitions of female blackness (i.e., mammies, jezebels, prostitutes, welfare queens).
In Charging the Net, Harris and Kyle-DuBose historicize the presence of African Americans in the world of professional tennis from the creation of the American Tennis [End Page 467] Association (ATA) in 1916 by black professionals, many of whom maintained the need to have a place for blacks interested in the sport, to the promotion of the game as a place where African Americans could gather and socialize (p. 107). Throughout its history, hundreds of talented African-American men and women participated in ATA sanctioned events and tournaments. Two of the most prominent were Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Both Gibson and Ashe were groomed and mentored by Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, a supporter of the ATA and founder of the "Junior Development Program" that prepared pre-teens and teens for tournament competition (p. 53). Under the guidance of Johnson and other members of the African-American community, Gibson and Ashe would be trained on how to respond to the racist gestures and denials long before they played on the world's stage and become two of the sport's most successful and most revered icons.
Charging the Net is a compelling examination of the impact of African Americans on the world of professional tennis and the various challenges and outcomes of that involvement. According to Harris and Kyle-DeBose, "Blacks at the highest level in tennis struggle for recognition and respect, whether they are players, coaches, administrators, or umpires. That reality has always been a part of the challenge" (p. 5). To be sure, the gatekeepers of the sport resisted the infusion of blackness represented by the numerous black tennis players who have ranked in the top one hundred in the world, which thus served as a foil to the elitist notions tied to the sport of tennis.
Still, African-American athletes such as Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Jeff Blake, and Venus and Serena Williams pursued their profession with the intent of changing not only how the game was played, but how African Americans were viewed in American society. Indeed, the choice to engage in a career as a professional tennis player for African-American men and women was the beginning of a lifelong odyssey that most had to be groomed to undertake. In Charging the Net, Harris and Kyle-DeBose convey the extent to which black athletes have needed not only the support of family and community, but a belief in themselves and their capacity to overcome the adversity present in a sport still fighting the changes taking place in the...