As the National Tennis Center launched its yearly tennis spectacular at Flushing Meadows, four African-American men bearing placards stood on a ramp leading to the site.
Their intended audience — thousands of fans streaming past to celebrate Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, complete with star music performers 98 Degrees and Jessica Simpson — paid only scant attention Saturday as they walked past.
Once inside, the fans watched qualifying matches for the U.S. Open tournament — which gets under way in earnest Monday — and playful exhibitions between top-seeded Andre Agassi and former champ John McEnroe, as well as a doubles match pitting Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis against Mark Philippoussis and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
Announcers such as movie star Alec Baldwin and model and VH-1 personality Roshumba paid homage to the late Ashe, for whom the center’s main stadium is named, and who, having won Wimbledon in 1975, is still the last African-American man to win a Grand Slam-level tournament.
Outside, the protesters stood quietly: Norman Wilkerson, a much-heralded teacher and coach from Atlanta; George Henderson, a teaching pro from North Miami; and William Washington, an outspoken coach from Delray Beach, Fla., whose son, Malivai was the most successful African-American man in tennis since Ashe; and his younger son Mashiska, also a tennis pro.
Mashiska, his father and the other demonstrators carried signs in hand-painted letters, reading: “Equal Opportunity in Tennis for People of Color.”
Washington, whose daughter Mashono is also a tour professional, said blacks are excluded by tournament promoters who give wild card entries to major tournaments to less deserving whites.
The wild-card process goes on largely unnoticed outside the world of tennis. At the top level, tournament directors invite lower-ranked but promising players to enter the main playing field, known as the draw, of major tournaments.
At a lower level, directors give players wild card admission to the qualifying rounds, which is considered a lesser prize, since they must win as many as five or six matches to reach the main draw.
Only in the main draw do unknown players have the chance to compete against top international stars such as Agassi, Patrick Rafter, and Sampras. Even winning a set there can catapult a little-known player into the spotlight. An upset can lead to endorsements and lucrative contracts with sporting goods companies and equipment manufacturers.
Issue in Litigation
But to William Washington, the doors to those opportunities aren’t opened far enough.
“There are no blacks coming to this tournament,” said Washington. “We’ve been protesting for three years and I don’t see [any] more [blacks] coming.”
U.S. Tennis Association officials said they could not comment because the issue is in litigation. Washington sued the USTA in December, charging biased treatment of Mashiska and Mashono.
Manhattan Attorney Sandra Frelix, who drafted the lawsuit, said the USTA had not altered its policy as a result of the complaint. “We just want equitable treatment,” she said. “Their behavior has been the same.”
Do White Players Unfairly Benefit?
Washington said tournament directors have ceded wild-card privileges to white-oriented management companies who represent players and help conduct the tournaments in which they compete.
In the main draw of this year’s tournament, he singled out Wild Card entrant Andy Roddick, 17, among others, as getting preferential treatment. He said these players’ highest recent rankings were lower than more deserving African-American players.
But a written analysis Washington handed out, which compared rankings and wild card entrances to recent tournaments, did not entirely bear out his contention.
Roddick, who scored a series of upsets two weeks ago to reach the quarterfinals of the Legg Mason tournament in Washington, D.C., ranked 646 on the ATP list, according to Washington. But Roddick’s invitation to the U.S. Open main draw was made only after he upset three seeded players at the Legg Mason, including Karol Kucera, the Slovakian who holds victories this year over Agassi, and Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil.
Washington’s son, Mashiska, was ranked 300 places higher on the list than Roddick but did not receive a wild card invitation into the main draw. Mashiska, who received a wild card into the qualifying tournament, was eliminated in the first round on Tuesday, losing to Jeff Coetzee of South Africa, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6).
Inside the tennis center, some fans echoed William Washington’s complaints.
An African-American woman who led a youth group, the Pyramid Tennis Association of Harlem, applauded Washington’s protest. “He has a legitimate complaint,” she said, declining to give her name.
“If you examine the wild cards, you often wonder: ‘How in the hell did he get in there,’” she said, referring to unspecified white players who she believed were less accomplished than blacks. “It’s getting worse every year.”
Others said the lack of opportunity goes deeper than just for wild cards, that money wasn’t being spent to promote the sport. Three years ago, the USTA announced it would spend more than $31 million over five years in about 20 communities to encourage youngsters and adults to join, and stay with, the sport.
“Whatever the powers may be, I don’t feel access has been provided to the children of minorities,” said Anthony Jules, 35, of Jersey City, N.J., a computer programmer for a financial firm. “If we had access, we would flourish in this sport.”
Jules, who attended the Ashe celebration with his wife, Charlene, and 18-month-old daughter, Erica, said success for blacks in tennis is at least “a generation away.”
Dressed in his tennis whites, Mashiska Washington held his protest placard aloft as fans passed by, occasionally glancing at him. He was asked why, with the success he and his brother had achieved, he didn’t work through the sport’s establishment.
“How can I work through the establishment?” he asked. “The establishment doesn’t work for people of color.”
And what of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, also African-Americans, each of whom has won a Grand Slam singles tournament in the past year?
“The system had nothing to do with them,” Mashiska Washington said.
The tournament directors “threw wild cards at them because they wanted to see them fail,” said William Washington, insisting that tennis authorities were angry at the Williams sisters’ father, Richard, who kept his daughters out of tournament competition for several years.
“Thank goodness they were strong enough to win,” he said.
When the Open starts here on Monday, Venus Williams, the Wimbledon champion, will begin play as the third seed. Her sister Serena, the defending U.S. Open champion, is seeded fifth.