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Locker Room Talk: Where are the black male tennis players?

Just like Sloane Stephens had the Williams sisters, male tennis players need role models too

Throughout the US Open, the question I repeatedly asked myself was: “Where is the African-American presence in world-class tennis?”

The answer was partially answered during championship week when Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Venus Williams reached the quarterfinals. It was the first time three American women of color (Keys is biracial) reached the semifinals.

Stephens defeated Venus Williams on Sept. 7 and beat Keys on Sept. 9 to win her first Grand Slam title.

But the other half of the question remains unanswered: Where are the black men in championship tennis?

The last African-American man to win a Grand Slam event was Arthur Ashe Jr., who won Wimbledon in 1975. Why has the road been so empty?

I spoke with Martin Blackman about the black male tennis conundrum last week at the Open. Blackman is general manager of player development for the U.S. Tennis Association. His newest initiatives involve making tennis more accessible, more affordable and more palatable for young players. “We have to make sure we’re doing an excellent job of attracting more young boys into the game,’’ he said.

That is easier said than done. And has been for decades.

Young black men are the spine of the college and professional football and basketball industries. Those sports are closely aligned, at the youth level, with middle and high schools and have an elaborate network to snag players at an early age. “The sports landscape is a lot more crowded on the men’s side,” Blackman said.

Not only is the sports landscape crowded, but the pool of young girls playing tennis is also substantially larger. “We’ve got more numbers on the women’s side,” he said. “If you look at African-American females versus males, we have more American women playing and competing at an elevated level on the women’s side, and that’s something we want to address.”

After Ashe’s victory at Wimbledon in 1975, as many as six black American players were ranked in the top 100. “The reason for that was because a lot of African-American young men who couldn’t afford the best coaching in the world went to college,” said Blackman. “When they got to college, they really got an elevated level of coaching, and they developed.”

But in the early 1990s, the importance of college as a primary pro pathway diminished. Talented young players such as Donald Young, who might have benefited by spending two years in college, began turning professional right out of high school.

“That had a big effect,” said Blackman, who believes that a major way to increase the number of black male tennis players is for more to go the college tennis route. The trend is beginning to change, with more black players opting to play college tennis. “But not enough,” Blackman said. “College is a very important part of the pipeline.”

But the competition for college tennis scholarships has intensified tenfold since Blackman went to Stanford in the 1980s. This puts a premium on private lessons that become enormously expensive. “That means that by the time a player is 17, 18 years old, in 12th grade, he must be at an elevated level just to get recruited,” Blackman said. “That means they had to have received really good training, and that’s where you come back to cost.”

You cannot escape the costs. Blackman is charged with developing initiatives to make tennis more accessible — and affordable. He believes the Excellence Team program, which includes an education initiative, will move the dial.

Having more black coaches is also a must. The neighborhood-based coach might give free lessons or bring a couple of deserving young players to tournaments they normally might not have been able to afford.

“If we had more African-American coaches in the community where the kids live, that is going to make an enormous difference.”

Blackman was admitted to a youth tennis program in New York when he was 10, but his parents couldn’t afford the cost of participation. The program’s coach, who was African-American, arranged for Blackman to receive a scholarship. Later, Blackman also got a scholarship to attend the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida.

“That’s how it happens,” he said. Blackman earned a tennis scholarship to Stanford, turned pro in 1988 and played on the ATP World Tour for seven years. He retired from the tour in 1995.

“It’s all about helping people,” Blackman said.

Venus and Serena Williams attracted thousands of African-American girls to tennis.

One of them, Stephens, just won her first major title.

When will black men break through? More to the point, who do young players have as role models?

“I still think a lot of our young African-American players look up to Donald,” Blackman said, referring to Young, now 28, who was anointed the next black male phenom when he was 15 years old. He has enjoyed a solid career, albeit one without a Grand Slam title. “Nonetheless, they’ve seen him mature. They’ve seen him play on some pretty big stages. “

I spoke with Young last week and asked him about the future of black male players on the tour.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You play a sport and don’t see a lot of yourself out there. It’s hard. You play other sports, you can relate. It’s difficult, even the music you like. You look at sports like basketball and everything’s pretty similar. The players all come from similar backgrounds. You kind of relate and talk.”

The larger issue is money. Always has been and likely always will be.

“Most minorities don’t have the money to be able to play,” he said. “Someone has to help them out, help them get to the point where you’re good enough, someone has to give you money to get to that point.”

Young added: “Most people are just trying to pay the rent and get regular stuff done, let alone spend thousands of dollars on a hobby, which tennis is at the beginning. It’s an expensive hobby.”

Young said he doesn’t think the numbers will increase dramatically over the next decade. “It’s never going to be many,” he said. Unlike the NBA or the NFL, where players who make the team get paid even if they don’t play and even if the team does not win.

”You eat what you kill in tennis, and it’s hard to kill,” Young said. “So you’re not going to eat much.”

Chris Eubanks is more upbeat than Young. Eubanks, 19, grew up watching Young, and Young has become a generous mentor. “He’s done an excellent job of mentoring me, taking me under his wing,” Eubanks said. Young brought Eubanks to the US Open a couple of times to see the environment.

“Kids aspire to be what they can see,” Eubanks said. “If they can see African-Americans doing well in tennis, it might inspire them to say, ‘Hey, it’s possible.’ ”

They will see more.

Despite the expense, despite the tennis culture, there will be more. History says so. Breaking through is in the African-American DNA.

Eubanks is part of an emerging core of young African-American male players on the tour who can become beacon lights: Frances Tiafoe, Eubanks, Michael Mmoh, Stephen Watson Jr. and Samuel Shropshire.

“We’re still young, we’re still trying to find ourselves in this game, but I think when we can have an impact on young kids and let them know that they can do some incredible things in this sport,” Eubanks said, “that allows kids to be able to believe that they can do it. They might take tennis a little more serious than they otherwise may have done.”

For Blackman, there is an urgency to find and develop more talented black men. The sport’s survival depends on it.

“Diversity offers an opportunity to grow,” Blackman said. “The more diverse tennis is, the more successful it will be, the more compelling it will be, the more attractive it will be to families who want to come into the game.”

There’s also the personal component of spreading the gospel of tennis.

Blackman feels that tennis is a metaphor for life: The sport is solitary and humbling. The sport builds character. “If we believe tennis is a sport that helps young people to maximize their potential as human beings, we need to get as many kids as possible into our sport,” Blackman said. “We don’t have enough African-American kids playing our sport, and we don’t have enough Hispanic kids playing our sport. It’s a sport that enriches the lives of these kids, and we’re not doing enough for African-American and Hispanic kids. Period.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.