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Black History Month shines a light on American success

February 5, 2015 03:16 PM

By E.J. Crawford, USTA.com

Serena Williams first finished in the year-end Top 50 in 1998. At the time, there were only two other African-Americans, men or women, ranked in the Top 50 alongside her: Serena’s older sister, Venus, and Chanda Rubin.

Today, African-Americans are a familiar fixture atop the rankings at both the tour and junior levels, with promising young players like Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Donald Young picking up the mantle of the Williams sisters, and before them, modern-day standouts James Blake, Zina Garrison, Malivai Washington, Lori McNeil and Rubin, all following in the trailblazing footsteps of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.

Serena said it best, after learning she would face Keys in the 2015 Australian Open semifinals: “It’s good to see another American, another African-American, in the semifinals playing so well. … It’s also great for me and Venus because we know that there are other Americans that are constantly playing well and playing better, showing that they want to be the world’s greatest.”

In fact, American women are dominating the Top 100, with 14 U.S. players cracking the century mark in the post-Australian Open rankings. That is the most of any nation – the Czech Republic is second, with nine – and includes African-Americans Serena (1), Venus (11), Keys (20), Stephens (41) and rising star Taylor Townsend (96). Another black player, 19-year-old Haitian-American Victoria Duval, had climbed to No. 87 in the world in 2014 before she was forced to step away from the game after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She is expected to make a full recovery and rejoin the tour soon.

Moreover, in February the U.S. named four African-Americans – Serena, Venus, Keys and Townsend – out of five players selected to travel to Argentina for a Fed Cup tie. And when Keys was forced to pull out with a leg injury, Townsend was bumped up from practice partner to the active lineup. 

“We’re obviously thrilled with the impact all our American players are having at the top of the game, and there’s no question that African-Americans are a big part of that,” said Katrina Adams, a former Top 10 doubles player who, in January, became the first African-American and first former touring pro to become president of the USTA. “As an association, we strive to attract players of all backgrounds to play tennis, and you can’t help but be encouraged by the recent success of African-Americans at the professional level – for their success has a positive impact at every level of the game.”

American and African-American success has not reached the same levels on the men’s side as the women’s, though Young has now successfully transitioned from junior star – he was the youngest player to finish as the year-end No. 1 junior rankings and won two junior Slams – to solid pro, checking in at No. 64 in the latest ATP rankings after cracking the Top 50 as recently as September 2014.

Best of all, there is a strong contingent of young black players poised for future success. Jarmere Jenkins, the 2013 NCAA singles runner-up and doubles champion, recently cracked the Top 200, and the junior ranks feature two promising talents in Francis Tiafoe – the 16-year-old who in 2013 became the youngest player to win the prestigious Orange Bowl, climbing to No. 2 in the world junior rankings in the process – and 17-year-old Michael Mmoh – currently ranked No. 7 in the world junior rankings.

Among the girls, 16-year-old Tornado Ali Black reached the US Open girls’ singles final in 2013 and her sister, Hurricane, is another highly touted junior.

Of course, only time will tell if any of these players can one day rise to the level of Blake or Williams. But it’s clear that, increasingly, African-American players are poised to make an impact on the sport – an impact that will hopefully inspire others to get in the game as well.