U.S.: American Tennis Association at Forefront of African-American Tennis

Tennis legend Althea Gibson won ATA Women’s singles titles from 1947-1956. She is also the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon. (Google Images)

Tennis legend Althea Gibson won ATA Women’s singles titles from 1947-1956. She is also the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon. (Google Images)

With Serena and Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and a number of other black tennis players currently fighting for titles on both the WTA and ATP Tours, it is essential to discuss the American Tennis Association (ATA), which fostered black tennis talent upon its 1916 beginning. Prior to the founding of the ATA,  Black tennis players began organized competitions in places like Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Baltimore as early as 1898.

According to the ATA’s website, the organization emerged in response to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s (now the United States Tennis Association) issuing of “a policy statement formally barring African-American tennis players from its competitions.” Therefore, “the Association Tennis Club of Washington, DC, and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Maryland, conceived the idea” of the ATA. Representatives from over 12 different black tennis clubs met together for the first time on November 30, 1916 on Thanksgiving Day.

To solidify its intention of not only providing the opportunity for blacks to enjoy the sport in a time of segregation, the ATA “held its first ATA National Championships, consisting of three events (men’s and women’s singles and men’s doubles), at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park in August 1917.”

These first Championships took place at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Most notably, and fast forward to a little over 30 years, the barriers placed between white and black tennis players were destroyed with the prominence of Althea Gibson, one of the most celebrated black athletes of all-time due to her achievements on and off court.

The ATA website discusses the ways in which Gibson had the opportunity to play: “Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, Dr. Hubert Eaton and Bertram Baker were among the ATA officials that were the key figures behind negotiations that in 1950 led to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s acceptance of Althea Gibson’s application to become the first Black person to ever compete in the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills.”

From 1956 to 1958, Gibson collected titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open and was runner-up at the Australian Open as well.

On the subject, the USTA recently re-published an article discussing rankings for the top moments in black tennis history, which were selected by a panel including champions Zina Garrison, MaliVai Washington and the Honorable David N. Dinkins, the former New York City Mayor, among others.

The first, according to the list, was Gibson’s breakthrough as the “first black player to compete at the US Championships” with the second being the start to the ATA. The third, meanwhile, discusses Arthur Ashe’s achievement of becoming “the first black man to win the US Open. He would later become the first black man to win Wimbledon in 1975.”

For more information about the ATA, which will host its 96th National Championships (July 29-August 3, 2013) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., go to http://www.americantennisassociation.org. The organization is also looking to celebrate its centennial in 2016 with a permanent home to “serve as a National Training Facility which will house the Black Tennis Hall of Fame.

Additionally, read the complete list of the top moments in black history on the USTA’s website, here, as well as for additional information about Gibson, Ashe, and more outstanding Black players.

The Cincinnati Herald also published an informative article about the ATA in 2012, which can be found here.

Benjamin Snyder is a sports contributor to The Burton Wire. You can follow him on Twitter @WriterSnyder.

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