When Leslie Allen won the Avon Championships tennis event in 1981, she became the first African American woman to win a significant pro tennis tournament since Althea Gibson in 1958.
Allen, who played on USC’s national championship tennis team in 1977, played 10 years on the professional tennis tour, where she was a top 20 player.
After her retirement, Allen worked as an executive with the USTA and became the first African American woman to serve as a WTA tournament director. She is the founder of Win4Life, a company that assists in the off-the-court development of athletes.
As the topic of race has dominated the national conversation in the aftermath of recent police killings of unarmed black men and women, Allen addresses the recent statement released by the USTA on current events in America.
In the midst of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, many companies, corporations and sports organizations began releasing statements on race in America. The United States Tennis Association followed suit with their own statement that addressed “the tragic events enveloping our country.”
Throughout my career, I’ve had many roles with the USTA: US Open player, tournament director, and Presidential Appointee. I’m even a life member of the USTA.
Knowing the organization as I do, I opened this USTA document of good intentions with great trepidation.
Their statement began:
Tennis is a sport that embraces all players, regardless of age, race or religion, gender and sexual orientation or nationality. It is a sport that is built on respect — respect for one another, and for the game itself. It is a sport with a long history of striving for equality and a proven record of trying to level the playing field of opportunity.
My initial thoughts reading that: Really!! Who wrote this? Am I being gaslighted?
While I’m sure the statement was released with good intentions, it felt tone-deaf as it failed to accurately reflect the long history of the USTA when it came to black players and black executives.
When I played professionally in the 1980s, there were few women of color on the pro tour. This was a time in the tennis world when black culture had not yet been appropriated. We were alone and felt the constraints of representing our race. If we “acted out” in any way, we risked being Kaepernicked. We kept silent, as to not risk messing up things for the next generation of black players.
We could play, but could not take a knee.
My mentor, Althea Gibson, for many years could not play in some tennis tournaments.
The reason? The USLTA (which later became the USTA) didn’t embrace black people. A key tenet for the USTLA for 70 years — from the time it was launched in 1881 — was segregation. The organization was so successfully exclusionary that the American Tennis Association (ATA) was formed so black people could enjoy tennis at their own clubs, play in their own tournaments and compete for their own national championships.
You know what it took to integrate tennis? A white woman.
In 1950, Alice Marble, by then a four-time US Open singles champion, wrote a scathing open letter (the Twitter of her day) chastising the sport and its practice of segregation and exclusion of Gibson. Marble wrote that Gibson “is a fellow tennis player and, as such, deserving of the same chance I had to prove myself.” In response to being publicly shamed, the USLTA relented and in 1950 invited Althea Gibson to play at Forest Hills in what’s now known as the US Open. She eventually won consecutive US Open and Wimbledon titles in 1957 and 1958.
Ironically, the color barrier was finally broken by Alice Marble showing, ostensibly, the quickest way to make change for black people was to have white people step up.
Powerful then. And still true today.
Whether in Althea’s time, or today, generations of black people have dealt with injustice, inequity, brutality and overt/covert racism. It is as American as apple pie. No matter how “loudly” we protested or how slow progress was actually being made, we were told, “be patient.” If we claimed something happened, it was dismissed as an “isolated incident,” or victimized further with the besmirching of one’s reputation. That made it more palatable for the majority to overlook or ignore injustice.
Today people of all ages, races and genders are speaking out acknowledging that racism exists, Black Lives Matter and change is necessary. Alice Marble said it best: “We can just ‘not think about it.’ Or we can face the issue squarely and honestly.”
Today it feels different with the white majority speaking out on behalf of the minority in the aftermath of George Floyd being murdered. The appearance that much of this nation is attempting to face the long history of racial injustice in a square and honest way makes me hopeful.
I actually didn’t play much tennis as a kid. My mother played in the ATA, which is how I learned about the mistreatment of ATA players when they dared to enter USLTA events. The challenges they faced included being given the wrong time for matches (and, thus being forced to forfeit), or being told once they showed up that their entries had not been received.
While I avoided USTA junior tennis, my black contemporaries shared their horror stories of having their results overlooked for selection to key national teams or rankings. If there were two black players at a tournament, they were often forced to play each other in the first round (that’s long been an issue at all levels of amateur tennis).
I got a strong dose of racial bias in tennis when I turned pro. I’d arrive at a venue where I was playing, only to be stopped by security asking, “May I help you?” Yet, I’d watch my white counterparts be waved through with no issues, which led me having to often call out to one of them to alert the guard that I belonged.
To validate me.
But that was light compared to the harsh treatment I would experience in the French Open mixed doubles finals. As my white male opponent walked by where I was sitting during the changeover, he leaned in and called me the “N” and “C” word. I was livid.
I had gathered a mouthful of saliva to deliver to his face during the handshake at the end of the match. I didn’t because, again, acting out meant the risk of being Kaepernicked. I was reluctant to talk much about the incident. He was never so much as reprimanded, and later ascended to be an executive with the USTA.
After my playing career ended, I worked as an executive for the USTA. As the tournament director for a WTA event in Vermont — I was the first black female tournament director in professional tennis — I was once asked to explain the ticket rainout policy to a patron. After I described the policy, the patron said, “OK, now I want to talk to the real TD.” In disgust, I sent my 20-something white male rookie media director to handle the issue.
During a meeting with a group of tennis decision-makers attending a meeting in the Presidential Suite of The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, the topic of a dress code for US Open sanitation workers — the majority of whom were black — came up.
There was a suggestion to dress them in blue-and-white overalls, accented by a red handkerchief. As everyone in the room co-signed the suggestion, I was horrified.
My first thought was, “Is this how white folks make those decisions that are so obviously wrong, culturally insensitive or blatantly racist?” As I stared out at the ocean, feeling my temperature rise, I thought what I was about to say could be the end of my job.
“This is not a good idea,” I told the group.
“Why not?” the person next to me said. “It’s so American, red, white and blue.”
I could literally feel my neck and jaw tighten. Even as I told them what was being suggested would be perceived as a throwback to a slave uniform, they all seemed perplexed. The person next to me responded, “They wear orange coveralls at the French Open, right?”
I reminded them that at the French Open the men were of all complexions. At the US Open, the workers responsible for keeping the grounds clean were black.
If I hadn’t been in that room, it would have been a disaster. I watched as they began to retrace their own steps around the grounds of the US Open to recall the complexion of the people who cleaned up that venue. “Oh, I never noticed that,” someone said.
And there it was. We are often invisible, especially to people trying to see us from an ivory tower.
I don’t usually talk about these microaggressions, implicit bias, in an open forum. Yet they are part of everyday life in America, and sometimes still in tennis.
Yes, things have improved exponentially. But let’s not forget the history and climate black people have had to endure.
Let’s go back to a line in the USTA statement:
“It is a sport with a long history of striving for equality and a proven record of trying to level the playing field of opportunity.”
It was not so much that it was revisionist history. It was a missed opportunity for our sport, tennis, to make a bold statement that could have helped bridge this country’s racial divide.
If the USTA had simply told its organization’s journey from staunch segregationist to having black leadership and champions of color at every level of the game, it could have highlighted the benefit of white people stepping up.
Tennis integrated because of a white person’s action. The words of Alice Marble provided Althea access to greatness that extends, today, to Coco Gauff.
Alice Marble’s words were prescient when she said Althea “is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.”
This is exactly what the George Floyd protesters want. This is what organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement want. This is what tennis players, even with the dominance of black women in the sport of the last two decades, want.
Much has been accomplished in tennis, but there is still work to be done. Instead of a milquetoast statement, the USTA should have used its platform to implore more white people to be like Alice Marble. To actually do something to remove that knee off our collective necks.