opinion |  The US Open shows diversity is good for tennis

opinion | The US Open shows diversity is good for tennis

During the long hot summers of my childhood, my father would watch endless hours of baseball on the black-and-white TV that sat in the corner of our living room.

Please notice that I said that he watched baseball. The game, for him, was a silent ritual. He would turn the sound down to silence the play-by-play announcers talking about foul balls, RBIs and inside pitches.

My father explained that sportscasters — at that time, all White dudes — would never know what some of those pioneering baseball moments would mean to someone like him. And I understand why a Black man from Alabama would not want to listen to a bunch of affluent announcers prattle on about what they thought about players such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Rod Carew.

I gained a new appreciation for his ritual of silencing sportscasters during hours of viewing the US Open — the two-week tennis tournament that this year offered thrilling, down-to-the-wire matches, often played by people of color.

Tennis is the fourth-most-popular sport in the world, and with Frances Tiafoe, Carlos Alcaraz, Ons Jabeur, Nick Kyrgios, Caroline Garcia, Coco Gauff, Rajeev Ram and Taylor Townsend all making it to the later rounds in both singles and doubles , the game has finally begun to resemble the entire planet.

That is great news and helps explain how I came to mute the experts myself. Some of the ESPN announcers covering Serena Williams’s second match at the Open, Chris Evert and John McEnroe, were praising her never-say-die comeback to win after a stretch of flat-footed play. But then they let their tongues go sideways when Evert started talking about all that Serena had learned “about being a Black woman in a White sport.”

I understand what Evert might have been trying to say, because Serena and her sister Venus did indeed have to figure out how to survive (and eventually dominate) a sport that was not meant for them. But it is ironic that some people who praise the Williams sisters’ gumption now were less than accommodating when they were just breaking into tennis.

Some of us cannot forget the snide comments McEnroe published in a British newspaper in 2000 complaining about the Williams sisters’ attitudes. McEnroe, who cursed at umpires, smashed his rackets and was nicknamed “Super Brat” for his childish, red-faced tantrums, complained that the Williams sisters weren’t friendly enough.

In London’s Sunday Telegraph, McEnroe wrote that the sisters lacked respect and humility. “Would it kill them to say hello to people in the locker room?” he asked.

Past Black players such as Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and Yannick Noah also faced head winds, but the Williams sisters faced a special kind of hostility because they did things on their own terms. They earned the grand slam crowns and millions in endorsements, and it is easy to forget that many who are now counted as devoted fans loudly questioned their presence, their physiques, their braids, their fashion choices and the playful crip walk dancing on court.

But let’s not pretend that was always the case. To fully celebrate their careers, one must acknowledge and understand the racism and judgment they faced simply because they were different.

So, the thing I’d like to hear from commentators is not to muse about what Serena learned as a Black woman in a “White sport,” but rather what they have learned as more players of color have entered the pantheon of that game. It should be a lot. We are seeing different styles of tennis, different paths to greatness and a diversified audience of fans. What does all that teach us?

The clear answer is that diversity is good for tennis. The audience for the tournament’s early rounds smashed records, partly because of Serena’s farewell matchups but also because of the sizzling play from top seeds and the wide range of up-and-comers.

I was traveling Friday, so I wound up watching the men’s semifinal match between Alcaraz and Tiafoe in a crowded hotel bar. Alcaraz is a 19-year-old phenom from Spain. Tiafoe, 24, is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who spent his childhood sleeping at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., where his father worked as a custodian. Sometimes he spent the night there, because his mother worked nights in a hospital. From hardship cam something special.

I’m not sure my father would have approved of me watching tennis in a Boston bar, but I smiled to myself when I realized I was following his old ritual. The sound was down. All you could hear was the chatter from a group that had gathered in front of the TV. The commentary was boisterous. Whooping. Hollering. High fives — and in the end (Alcaraz prevailed in a grueling five-hour, five-set match), a few tears.

No wonder. We were all looking at the future of tennis.

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