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.