Sports

Does Tennis Have a Race Problem?

The men's game is devoid of diversity and successful non-white female players are described as having a "natural advantage". Does tennis have a race problem?

by David Whelan
Jun 18 2015, 12:31pm

All photos by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Last year, as I was queuing for a ground pass on the first Wednesday of Wimbledon, an American family just ahead of me were deep in conversation about a player. Around 500,000 people visit the Championships each year, at roughly 40,000 people a day. For two weeks a year, it is the most densely populated area of tennis fans in the world.

If you're unfamiliar with the Wimbledon ticket system, it's a little like this: you wake up at 5:30am, crawl to one of two tube stations near the complex, queue for five hours in a snaking line that runs the length and depth of a field, next to people who, presumably, share the same passion for the sport as you and are not about to say something awful.

This assumption is choreographed in people's outfits. Everyone is in uniform: porcelain white socks pulled high up on the calf, loose fitting polo shirts stuffed into baggy shorts, the occasional unwrinkled pair of red trousers. The paint-remover fragrance of SPF30 clings to lightly pinked flesh.

British people doing their absolute favourite thing: standing in a long, well-regulated queue

On first impressions this family seemed nice. They were young and their skin glowed with years spent outside in the sun, tossing up balls on the courts. You can often pick the Americans out from the queue by the colour of their skin; it's like stained rice. They were dressed head to toe in sporting apparel, Adidas, Nike, US Open 2013; from my vantage point in front of the white-washed morning sun, they appeared to be dressed not to watch, but to play.

Then, they opened their mouths.

"We gotta go see that little black girl," the mother said to her kids, searching for the name. "Serena?" one asked. "Venus? Sloane? Madison? Taylor?"

"Oh, not Taylor," the mum replied. "She's not a little black girl. She's more of a -" And then the kid said the word on her mum's mind and they all shuffled nervously about, presumably embarrassed that their private family game of bigotry may have been overheard by their neighbours.

First impressions can be deceiving. As racism goes it was unsurprising, albeit still jarring. Tennis is a monochrome sport, perhaps the last global event to remain staunchly white in its sensibilities and participants. A few months before Wimbledon 2014, it was revealed that a young mixed race British player named Isaac Stoute had decided to sue the LTA for discrimination over funding and support. This came eight years after Yasmin Clarke had attempted to do something similar.

Across the last 28 Grand Slams, only one non-white player has competed in a men's final – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open in 2008. Currently, there are only two black players in the Men's top 50 and only 1 from Asia. Since the ATP Tour began in 1990, only Michael Chang and Tsonga have won any of the ATP 1000 Master events.

This ratio is mirrored historically. In the 91 years since the four Majors were instigated, only two black players have won a Grand Slam and one Asian player: America's Arthur Ashe (who won one Wimbledon, one Australian and one US Open over seven years), France's Yannick Noah (who won the French in 1983) and America's Michael Chang (the French, 1989). That's a total of five Slams out of the 364 that have been contested since 1924, the inaugural year of the four Majors, or 1.37%. Statistically, it's more likely you'll get into Harvard School of Law than see a male black or Asian player win a Slam in your lifetime.

Arthur Ashe became Wimbledon's first black champion in 1975

This is a surprising fact, when it's also the world's fourth most popular sport, just behind football, cricket and field hockey.

The women's game appears marginally better, due mostly to the presence of potential greatest-of-all-time Serena Williams and her elder sister, Venus, who have spent the past 20 years collecting 113 singles titles between them. China's Li Na won the French Open in 2011 and the Australian in 2014.

But all of the Williams sisters' success has not been greeted with the expected adoration it deserves, with some suggesting it's down to her sex and race. Serena had refused to play at Indian Wells for 14 years after she was the victim racist heckling in the final against Kim Clijster by a predominantly white, predominantly American, crowd, with one man quoted as saying, "I wish it was '75; we'd skin you alive."

This is neither a new trend nor an old one, but a continued crime against one of the best athletes on the planet, of either gender. It's an institutionalised problem – spread by everyone from the fans to vocal ex-players to those who run the show.

In regard to the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis once said that "being black only helps them", which sounds like the words of someone who has never experienced racism trying to explain why they are about to say something racist. Only last year, Shamil Tarpischev, Russia's tennis president, described Venus and Serena as "the Williams brothers", a statement that is both disgusting and maddeningly familiar.

This is the sort of problem that Serena, and all other non-white tennis players, have had to deal with throughout most of their careers, with the sport still drenched in racist language. Watch any of Tsonga or Gael Monfils' matches and you will undoubtedly hear their game as being described as "athletic" or "unpredictable", words that are right up there in the pantheon of reductive race based language.

Serena Williams has won 20 Grand Slams. Yet, at times, her success is explained as the result of a "natural advantage"

One reason why this may be the case is because tennis is currently obsessed with attempting to appear as bland as absolutely possible at all times. To never let their emotions get the better of them; to always play their best at the most important moment. Most high profile players deliberately present themselves in possession of as much personality as a 404 page.

Historically, the language associated with black athletes directly opposes this trend. Take, by way of example, how Monfils' immense creativity on the court is often put down to what Ben Carrington describes in his essay about the media's representation of black athletes as a product of "the unthinking black body" – "Black athletes," he goes on to write, "are invariably described as being strong, powerful and quick but with unpredictable and 'wild' moments when they supposedly lack the cognitive capabilities – unlike their white peers – to have 'composure' at critical moments." Roger Federer's similar brand of spontaneity is called genius.

Tsonga, who exudes personality and is rightly loved for it, is constantly compared to Muhammad Ali, despite not having regarded him as a sporting idol when he was growing up or, indeed, playing tennis like it's boxing. It's not necessarily an offensive comparison, but it does feel unthinking, lazy, and potentially damaging.

Novak Djokovic is not compared to Beaker from the Muppets, even though he's a deadringer. He's compared to the Terminator, despite the fact he feigns injury and moans to his box almost every match he plays. It's a strange and troubling melting-pot of age-old racism within a sport that favours blank faces over smiles.

Neither Tsonga nor Monfils' games are exactly unpredictable, either, with both players consistently ranking within the top 20 across the past five years (when they're not on the operating table). You know precisely what you're going to get when either man steps out on court. Unless you call sustained brilliance unpredictable. Tsonga, remember, has won multiple Masters 1000 titles and reached a Grand Slam final, during an era dominated by four of the 10 most titled men in the Open Era.

Tsonga at Wimbledon in 2014

Those descriptions also imply that the men's very greatest players – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka – who all happen to be white, are there due to other, more refined processes. The thing is, all top athletes are athletic. If you weren't athletic, you wouldn't be an athlete. It's simple nominative determinism

This is also why Serena gets so much stick – Serena is criticised consistently for her work ethic, her "natural advantage", as if her incredible ability is getting in the way of the Eastern European porcelain blondes just behind her in the ranking. After her win against Lucie Šafářová at the French Open this year, one punk took to social media to call her a "gorilla" (among other things).

This isn't isolated to just Serena within the Women's game. When American Madison Keys broke on to the scene with some sensational attacking tennis to knock out Venus Williams in this year's Australian Open, she was immediately questioned about her ethnicity, to which she replied: "I don't really think of it. I don't really identify myself as white or African-American. I'm just me. I'm Madison."

In an article published by The Telegraph in 2011, this is quite genuinely how they describe Heather Watson's game: "Watson's of play has been described as similar to the Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga due to her serve and athleticism and her advancement may well take her into the Women's Tennis Association top 100 rankings."

I do not need to tell you what ethnicity Heather is. Heather Watson categorically does not play like Tsonga. We have already established Tsonga doesn't play the way Tsonga is described to play, so it would be pretty hard for Watson to play like that.

Watson is currently ranked 47th in the world, making her Britain's top female player

She is a well-balanced, hard-running player, with a brilliant return game, but because they're both mixed race, the exact same words are used. Her Wikipedia claims she made this comparison herself – but the only source for the quote available is within The Telegraph.

Arguments for the reasons for the sustained whiteness of tennis go from a lack of affordable courts to its reputation as a posh sport. This is particularly the case in Britain – where our major events are held in the traditionally wealthier areas of Wimbledon, Kensington and Edgbaston.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the history of great African-American players runs through the veins of the US Open, another one of the four calendar Slam events, which is played each year at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Be a top seed, or progress far enough, and your matches will play out under the lights of the Arthur Ashe stadium.

People can point to America and France – two nations that traditionally promote the sport to kids of all backgrounds – as examples of nations that have produced a diverse roster of star players. But, until the sport can correct the way it treats and discusses its current diverse crop of world-class athletes, it will remain a racist place to play.