Even at 100 years old, Robert “Bob” Ryland, the first Black man to crack the racial barrier on the mainstream professional tennis tour, maintained a thirst for the game. Quenching that thirst in recent weeks often saw Ryland at home with his hearing aid, intently listening to programming on the Tennis Channel.
“(His wife) would play audio for him and he’d either listen to tennis or music,” said Leslie Allen, a former top 20 tennis player who was coached by Ryland from childhood and often FaceTimed him. “If it was tennis, he would always ask to have his Adidas warm-up pants put on him. He stayed true to what he was.”
Ryland was also the first Black person to compete in the NCAA national championships and the teacher of professional tennis players and celebrities, including Allen, the Williams sisters, Barbra Streisand, Eartha Kitt, Bill Cosby and Tony Bennett. Ryland — the Jackie Robinson of his sport — died at home on Sunday after spending time recently at a rehabilitation center.
Ryland had celebrated his 100th birthday in June and was the oldest tennis permit holder in New York City.
Born in Chicago in 1920, Ryland took up tennis when he was 10 and won both the Illinois state and junior American Tennis Association (ATA) singles titles in 1939 while attending Tilden Tech High School. He received a scholarship to play tennis at Xavier University in New Orleans, but had to leave school after a year to serve a stint in the Army during World War II.
At the end of the war in 1945, Ryland reentered civilian life in a country that didn’t fully embrace him as a Black man. He received a scholarship to resume his tennis career at Wayne State University in Detroit, but was often forced to eat separately from his teammates because restaurants refused to serve him. He would also occasionally sleep on the team bus due to hotels refusing to allow him on their premises.
Despite the slights, Ryland excelled at Wayne State. He reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA championships in 1945 and advanced to the third round of the championships the following year. He’s credited as one of the first two Black players to play in the NCAA tennis championships. Ryland was inducted into the Wayne State Hall of Fame in 1991.
Following his successful college career, Ryland taught tennis while playing ATA tournaments, at the time the main outlet for Black players. He was an advocate for other talented Black players. In his book, Robert Ryland, First Black Professional Male Tennis Player, Ryland wrote that while partnered with Alice Marble during a mixed doubles exhibition match in the 1940s that featured ATA and mainstream players, he was asked what he thought of Althea Gibson.
“I said she had the skills, the head for the game, and should be playing in the USTA,” Ryland wrote. “She could easily become Number One in the world.”
A few years later, in 1950, Marble published an open letter in an issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine challenging racism in the sport. That criticism from Marble, a white player who won 18 Grand Slam championships during her career, opened the doors for Gibson to break the color barrier in women’s professional tennis.
Ryland broke the racial barrier in men’s professional tennis in 1959 with an invitation to play on the World Pro Tour, becoming the first Black person to play on what had been a whites-only tour. He was 39.
“Looking back over the years,” Ryland told The New York Times in 1994, “I’ll [always] wonder if I could have made it big with the right backing, like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.”
The first-ever African American pro tennis player (yes, you read that correctly)
— TENNIS (@Tennis) February 11, 2020
Ashe, who was the first Black man to win the Australian Open, US Open and Wimbledon, looked up to Ryland while growing up, and once said his dream was “to be good enough to beat Bob Ryland.”
During his career as a player, Ryland traveled the country teaching tennis. He worked with the rich and famous at the exclusive St. Albans Tennis Club in Washington, as well as the Midtown Tennis Club in New York.
“At the Midtown Tennis Club, everybody who was anybody would go there to take lessons from him,” Allen said. “He traveled with celebrities and, since I’ve known him since I was 11, he got some of them to sponsor me when I was starting my career.”
Allen remained close to Ryland, and they had recent conversations about current events.
“We were discussing the death of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Allen said, “and he told me, ‘They’re still stomping on us.’ ”
On the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York are various pavers etched with the names of individuals and companies. One of those pavers is dedicated to Ryland, with the words “Robert Ryland: Coach and Friend.”
For the people in the game whose lives he touched, he’ll never be forgotten.
“He was instrumental in my career, touched so many lives and is the reason behind the growth of so many players of color in tennis today,” Allen said. “To many people he was Coach Ryland, but for me, he was Cousin Bob. He was family, and what I always knew about him was that he loved tennis until the very end.”