The Ball Is in Their Court

Realizing that tennis isn't black enough, the USTA is reaching out to children

Balance is important. And relaxation. But to send the ball sailing with that trademark pock, what really matters is position, getting leverage on the ball so you can thwack it with authority. “You’ve got to move your feet,” Zonia Alston tells a group of children gathered on the tennis courts at Oakland’s Mosswood Recreation Center one recent afternoon.

The kids, predominantly black and ranging in age from eight to twelve, are lined up behind the baseline holding rackets nearly as big as they are. They listen dutifully as Alston demonstrates the proper stance — knees bent, right wrist positioned in front of the hip, racket edge pointing 45 degrees to the left — and anxiously await a chance to take some swings.

Across the net sit five targets — basically garbage can lids fastened to green milk crates with purple and yellow bull’s-eyes painted on them. Alston tosses tennis balls, and each kid gets three swings: Hit one of the targets, win a ticket for a prize. And take out your aggressions on the fuzzy yellow culprit.

Most of the children have terrible form — after all, many have never held a tennis racket. Their shots mostly carom off the net, and one kid hits the ball so far it seems destined for Livermore. Then eight-year-old Sahar Simon steps up and POCK! — sends the ball clean over the net, where it hits the side of a target on first bounce.

“One ticket!” Alston cheers.

Sahar is elated — until her second shot lands dead in the net.

“One more,” Alston says. “Move your feet to the ball.”

The girl bends her knees and delivers a shot that just misses one of the targets. Still, it’s her strongest yet. She looks disappointed, but not for long — Alston lets her pick from a box of goods donated by the United States Tennis Association. Sahar chooses a T-shirt with a tennis player in mid-swing and a caption that reads: Strok’n.

The point of this USTA-sponsored open house, which has attracted several hundred kids to the Oakland park, is to expose inner-city children to tennis. The association, well aware of the sport’s rep as a country club game, has embarked on a concerted campaign to recast it in a light more attractive to minorities who, after all, comprise a significant portion of the lucrative United States market for sports equipment and spectatorship. The organization’s recent drive involves a multimillion-dollar national ad campaign along with several outreach programs aimed to introduce the sport to minority communities. “They are, for the first time in history, really revamping their image,” says Lori Shepherd, a community tennis director for the Alameda-based USTA NorCal, one of the trade group’s seventeen national chapters.

Noble as the USTA’s efforts may seem, it actually took a critical 1994 Sports Illustrated article to shake the organization from its complacent foundation. Headlined “The Sorry State of Tennis,” the piece bemoaned the greed and selfishness of the sport’s top players, calling tennis “boring,” “spoiled rotten,” and “hopelessly out of touch with the real world.”

“It caused a tremendous knee-jerk reaction in the USTA,” notes Craig Stephens, another community tennis director with the NorCal chapter. “A bunch of tired old men sitting in lawn chairs got those lawn chairs pulled out from under them when it was suggested that their golden goose, the US Open, might die.”

And how golden that goose is. The Open, the USTA’s top revenue generator, nets more than $100 million annually. Yet at the time the SI article appeared, the tournament’s television ratings had recently plummeted an embarrassing 12 percent and racket sales had dropped by 22.6 percent. With tournament purses and expenses on the rise — the Open’s 2004 purse could run as high as $19 million, the most generous in sports — diminishing future returns seemed inevitable. Daunted, the trade organization spent more than $1 million to commission a survey to find out what the problem was.

Why it cost a million bucks to figure out that tennis ain’t black enough is anybody’s guess. Just consider the NorCal chapter’s 250 best youth players, who range in age from ten to eighteen: Only five of the 125 top-ranked girls and three of the 125 top-ranked boys are African American. Whites and Asians dominate the rankings, meanwhile, comprising 90 percent of the girls and 95 percent of the boys.

But the USTA survey did identify some key trends about how and where tennis was played. “When the results came out, we discovered that three-quarters of tennis played in the US is played on public courts,” Stephens says. The organization’s conclusion: There was a big untapped market out there of potential fans and players. “We now have a greater understanding of the multicultural approach from a business perspective,” says Bruce Hunt, NorCal’s executive director. “Any business can look and see the value of multicultural outreach, and make it a large priority.”

But change has been a long time coming. As far back as 1991, the USTA had formed a multicultural participation committee, whose job it was to address barriers to public participation in tennis. But even then, Stephens claims, there was resistance within the organization among those who saw the courts as a white domain. It wasn’t until last year the USTA made minority outreach a top-level strategic priority, according to Hunt. “In looking at our model a couple of years ago, we weren’t happy with the way we were spreading in the community,” he says.

Thus began the effort to fund and promote tennis in black and Latino areas where public court space is readily available — like Oakland. “There’s a lot of talent here,” says Audree Jones-Taylor, watching the action on the Mosswood Park courts from a safe distance. “A lot of young people want to be the next Venus, the next Serena.”

Jones-Taylor has been director of Oakland’s Office of Parks and Recreation since March. Coincidentally, she’s a tennis fan, having played as a young woman during the tennis boom of the 1970s when, according to the aforementioned Sports Illustrated article, the sport’s popularity peaked at 35 million participants.

As a black woman, Jones-Taylor understands how color barriers can keep otherwise interested players from joining the fray. “Elitist society has plagued it for people of color, because they weren’t exposed to it,” she says. Her goal as Parks and Rec chief is to have every one of Oakland’s 59 public tennis courts in use. It’s a challenge she’s brought to USTA NorCal. The chapter seems enthusiastic, she says, and helped organize the Mosswood open house.

But how serious is the USTA about boosting multicultural involvement? NorCal’s annual budget is about $2.6 million, for instance, but only $82,000 was earmarked last year for minority grants and scholarships. And that’s for all of Northern California — not just the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, the two local schools currently receiving USTA support for their student tennis programs — Hillcrest Elementary in Oakland and John Muir Elementary in Berkeley — are hardly “inner-city.” Hillcrest, at 70 percent Caucasian, is just about as white as Oakland public schools get. Want minority participation? Try introducing tennis to Stonehurst Elementary, where there was just one white kid among its 709 students in 2002-2003, or Sobrante Park Elementary, which had no white kids at all.

To stimulate real minority interest in tennis, you need cash, says Terry Stewart, who works with some one hundred fledgling racketeers as director of the Mosswood Junior Tennis Program and through his work for nonprofit Youth Tennis Advantage. “It can cost thousands of dollars to run these programs,” he says.

The obstacles he cites include the cost of equipment, space, and coaches, many of whom volunteer their time simply for the love of the game. “If a coach can’t make a decent living, they can only volunteer so much,” says Stewart, who worked out a deal with the city for free use of the courts and recreation center. “The USTA should be able to do more with that.”

But even a well-funded outreach program faces big hurdles in minority communities. “The cultural environment does not lend itself to individual skill-type sports,” says Harry Edwards, a sports sociologist and former Cal professor who ran Oakland’s Parks and Rec department for three years. Limited space and facilities, he says, make team sports like basketball and baseball a much more desirable option — they’re cheaper, and more kids can play.

Not to mention the rep tennis has cultivated over the decades: effete, pompous, and overwhelmingly white. “Will an outreach program trump all these forces? I don’t think so,” says Edwards, who likens the effort to “whistling against a hurricane.”

Jones-Taylor is more optimistic, but concedes it will take more than outreach programs for tennis to blossom in minority communities. “A lot of schools are seeking African Americans and Latinos to get involved,” she says. “But they have to want to do it.”

Back at Mosswood, Stewart says the USTA has agreed to give him a $2,000 grant, and that he’ll continue to look for outside money. Such is the current state of tennis in Oakland. “They are getting a whole lot better,” he says of the USTA during a break from practice. “But we’ll see how things are going to go in the future.”

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