From the archives: Black athletes struggle for tennis equality

Kent Kawahara/Daily Cal Archives/File

This story was first published in the April 14, 1987 issue of The Daily Californian. This archival article has been edited to reflect changes made to Daily Cal style since then.

By Michael Silver

Daily Cal contributing writer

Kurt Streeter is a big man with a big serve. When he steps on the tennis court and starts unleashing his left-handed rockets, you can almost feel the earth start to shake.

At 6’6″, and with a stroke more powerful than Sugar Ray Leonard on a sugar high, Streeter would be noticeable on a tennis court even if he weren’t Black. But Streeter’s sport is tennis, and he and Brian Flowers — both of whom play for the 12th-ranked Cal team — stand out whether they like it or not.

Take last Saturday’s match against Arizona State. Streeter, the Bears’ No. 5 singles player, was on his way to a straight-set victory over the Sun Devils’ Jeff Wood, when Wood began to burn. Streeter described the action:

“My brother and his wife, and two of their friends (all of whom are Black), were back watching behind the fence. At one point they were clapping, and the guy said to my brother — ‘Shut up chocolate chip, before I shut you up.’ ”

Because Streeter’s brother is also 6’6″, it’s pretty obvious that Wood was the one who eventually shut his mouth. But the incident, like last week’s Al Campanis saga, is proof that racism is alive and well and living in front of often unsuspecting faces. 

In tennis, a sport founded by an elite class and which, in the United States, revolves heavily around country clubs, the lack of Black players is a fact of life. The absence of role models, the enormous cost of training on the junior level and the subtle and overt racism present in many tennis environments have all conspired to keep Black athletes on basketball courts instead of clay courts.

“It’s a spoiled rich kids’ sport,” said Streeter, who hails from Seattle. “There are a lot of spoiled rich kids used to getting their way. It’s easy for a Black guy to break in if he has the economic means.”

Some middle-class kids — Streeter and Flowers, for example — do have the means to get started. But once they decide to make the serious commitment to the junior circuit, and the lessons and travel expenses start to add up, it takes some pretty deep pockets to sustain their burgeoning careers.

Streeter and Flowers both received economic aid from Arthur Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion and role-model-in-residence for Black tennis players. Ashe’s success has also had some unintended negative effects, but more on that later.

“Quite a few of those who’ve come up in the juniors have come to me for advice and assistance,” Ashe said yesterday in a phone interview. “You never know how far one can go when given the resources to reach their potential.”

“The problem is still quite difficult. Specifically, after one decides one is interested at the phase-two level — when they’re 8, 9 and 10 years old — that’s where you lose a lot of players. They realize that you’re going to have to fork out a lot of money, and most people say ‘To hell with this.’ ”

Streeter, Flowers and a few others have made it to the collegiate level, but the number of prominent American Black players can still be counted on one hand. Ironically, that’s about 20 fingers less than the number of white South Africans competing for U.S. colleges.

“We’re probably the first top-10 team to have two Black players in the top six,” Streeter said. “It’s definitely a novelty. Now we’re heavily recruiting another Black guy, Martin Blackmon. If we get him, this team can change a lot of things.”

Blackmon, who lives in New York, is big and athletic. He’s also one of the top junior players in the world. Any young player in his position would face a considerable amount of pressure, but Blackmon, whom Ashe calls “the best I’ve ever seen at that age,” is the latest version of The Great Black Hope.

“One of the biggest things about being a Black tennis player is there’s a lot of added pressure put on you,” Flowers said. “After I had a successful summer, a lot of people wanted a piece of me. A lot of people start hounding you and put a lot of emphasis on you being the next Arthur Ashe. You become a celebrity too soon, before you’ve really done anything.”

Recent examples include former collegiate stars Rodney Harmon of SMU and Chip Hooper of Arkansas. Flowers, a friend of Harmon’s, says the pressure “drove him out of tennis.”

“The prevailing attitude among (Black Americans) regarding tennis is that they’ve been looking for the next Arthur Ashe,” said Cal coach Scott McCain, who played on the professional tour for six years. “(French superstar Yannick) Noah is obviously Black, but he’s not American.”

“Chip Hooper — it really hurt him. He was talking about winning Wimbledon after one round. When other guys read that, they started laughing.”

Not many people were laughing a few months ago when Zina Garrison, one of the top female players in the world, had her sponsorship withdrawn by Pony, reportedly because she didn’t fit the image the shoe company was trying to project.

Streeter calls such incidents an example of the “racism of the ’80s,” which, because of its subtle nature, is potentially even more dangerous than overt discrimination.

“Zina Garrison right now can’t get an endorsement contract,” Streeter said. “How many players in the top 10 don’t have endorsements? She has to sew her own skirts.”

Garrison and fellow pro Lori McNeil both came out of the city of Houston’s public courts program, headed by John Wilkerson. Flowers played on those same public courts until he was 12, when he moved to New Jersey.

“Wilkerson has been able to take two players and coach them, from the first time they put a racket in their hands, all the way to the top 10,” Ashe said. “I don’t know any other coach who’s done that.

“Very few of the Black players today come from poor backgrounds. Poor kids tend not to even play. I came from a middle-class background, and I was very lucky. I was a freak, no question. Zina and Lori are also freaks.”

Not that middle-class Black people have it easy. Flowers recalls his hometown country club in Westfield, New Jersey, where, despite a junior career that featured top-10 national rankings, he never became a member.

“Westfield (Country Club) is one of those places that still makes you wear all white when you play,” Flowers said. “I was the best player to ever come out of there, and I still couldn’t get in after three to four years on the waiting list. Friends of mine were getting in. It was pretty ridiculous.”

If New Jersey is that bad, you can imagine what it’s like in the South, where Streeter and Flowers encountered racism while touring last summer.

“I had to leave my home in Virginia, it got so bad,” Ashe said.

Now the problem is worse than ever. U.S. tennis, after flourishing in the mid-’70s, is on the decline, and many of the top international players are coming from places such as Germany, Sweden and Czechoslovakia.

“This country’s really searching for a new breed of player that has the tools to compete with the big, strong Boris Beckers,” Streeter said. “Tennis has been closed off to a major portion of this country.

“Maybe if we develop that untapped talent, we’ll be able to compete with the Beckers and the Lendls. Instead of 6’6″ guards going to UCLA, we’ll have Pooh Richardson playing tennis.”

Streeter cited the Houston program as an example of what is needed, and said Seattle has developed a similar one. 

“That’s kind of the thing that has to happen in urban areas,” Streeter said. “That’s where you’re going to find the Black talent.”

“I think it’s important to give something back when you receive. When I go back (to Seattle) in the summers, I play with young Black kids and give them free lessons. There’s one kid I plan on taking to a couple of tournaments. If Black kids, especially lower-class kids, look up to me, that’s great — I want to be an example.”

Ashe, the most famous example of all, also stressed the importance of role models.

“It gives the truth that it can be done,” Ashe said. “I was lucky, because the only one before me was Althea Gibson, and nobody was comparing me to her.”

“But Althea was a freak. She came from a poor family. No poor Black male has ever made it. And there’s tons of Black boxers, basketball players and football players who literally started off dirt-poor.”

So while Ashe, Streeter and others work for the future, the dark cloud still hangs over Black tennis players of the present.

“Most Black players pull for you,” Streeter said. “I pull for most Black players. We all tend to hang together.”

“It’s kind of like a fraternity. There aren’t too many of us, but we’re coming up.”