N E W Y O R K, Aug. 27, 2000 -- As the National Tennis Center launched its yearlytennis spectacular at Flushing Meadows, four African-American men bearingplacards stood on a ramp leading to the site.
Their intended audience — thousands of fans streaming past tocelebrate Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, complete with starmusic performers 98 Degrees and Jessica Simpson — paid only scant attention Saturday as they walked past.
Once inside, the fans watched qualifying matches forthe U.S. Open tournament — which gets under way in earnestMonday — and playful exhibitions between top-seededAndre Agassi and former champ John McEnroe, as well asa doubles match pitting Pete Sampras and MartinaHingis against Mark Philippoussis and ArantxaSanchez-Vicario.
Announcers such as movie star Alec Baldwin and model and VH-1personality Roshumba paid homage to the late Ashe, forwhom the center’s main stadium is named, and who,having won Wimbledon in 1975, is still the lastAfrican-American man to win a Grand Slam-leveltournament.
Outside, the protesters stood quietly: NormanWilkerson, a much-heralded teacher and coach from Atlanta;George Henderson, a teaching pro from North Miami; andWilliam Washington, an outspoken coach from DelrayBeach, Fla., whose son, Malivai was the most successfulAfrican-American man in tennis since Ashe; and his younger sonMashiska, also a tennis pro.
Mashiska, his father and the other demonstratorscarried signs in hand-painted letters, reading: “EqualOpportunity in Tennis for People of Color.”
Washington, whose daughter Mashono is also a tourprofessional, said blacks are excluded by tournamentpromoters who give wild card entries to majortournaments to less deserving whites.
The wild-card process goes on largely unnoticedoutside the world of tennis. At the top level,tournament directors invite lower-ranked but promisingplayers to enter the main playing field, known as thedraw, of major tournaments.
At a lower level, directors give players wild cardadmission to the qualifying rounds, which isconsidered a lesser prize, since they must win as manyas five or six matches to reach the main draw.
Only in the main draw do unknown players have thechance to compete against top international stars suchas Agassi, Patrick Rafter, and Sampras. Even winning aset there can catapult a little-known player into thespotlight. An upset can lead to endorsements andlucrative contracts with sporting goods companies andequipment manufacturers.
Issue in Litigation
But to William Washington, the doors to thoseopportunities aren’t opened far enough.
“There are no blacks coming to this tournament,” saidWashington. “We’ve been protesting for three years andI don’t see [any] more [blacks] coming.”
U.S. Tennis Association officials said they could notcomment because the issue is in litigation. Washingtonsued the USTA in December, charging biased treatmentof Mashiska and Mashono.
Manhattan Attorney Sandra Frelix, who drafted thelawsuit, said the USTA had not altered its policy as aresult of the complaint. “We just want equitabletreatment,” she said. “Their behavior has been thesame.”
Do White Players Unfairly Benefit?
Washington said tournament directors have cededwild-card privileges to white-oriented managementcompanies who represent players and help conduct thetournaments in which they compete.
In the main draw of this year’s tournament, he singledout Wild Card entrant Andy Roddick, 17, among others,as getting preferential treatment. He said theseplayers’ highest recent rankings were lower than moredeserving African-American players.
But a written analysis Washington handed out, whichcompared rankings and wild card entrances to recenttournaments, did not entirely bear out his contention.
Roddick, who scored a series of upsets two weeks agoto reach the quarterfinals of the Legg Masontournament in Washington, D.C., ranked 646 on the ATPlist, according to Washington. But Roddick’sinvitation to the U.S. Open main draw was made onlyafter he upset three seeded players at the Legg Mason,including Karol Kucera, the Slovakian who holdsvictories this year over Agassi, and Gustavo Kuerten ofBrazil.
Washington’s son, Mashiska, was ranked 300 placeshigher on the list than Roddick but did not receive awild card invitation into the main draw. Mashiska, whoreceived a wild card into the qualifying tournament,was eliminated in the first round on Tuesday, losingto Jeff Coetzee of South Africa, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6(6).
Inside the tennis center, some fans echoed WilliamWashington’s complaints.
An African-American woman who led a youth group, thePyramid Tennis Association of Harlem, applaudedWashington’s protest. “He has a legitimate complaint,”she said, declining to give her name.
“If you examine the wild cards, you often wonder: ‘Howin the hell did he get in there,’” she said,referring to unspecified white players who shebelieved were less accomplished than blacks. “It’sgetting worse every year.”
Others said the lack of opportunity goes deeper thanjust for wild cards, that money wasn’t being spent topromote the sport. Three years ago, the USTA announcedit would spend more than $31 million over five yearsin about 20 communities to encourage youngsters andadults to join, and stay with, the sport.
“Whatever the powers may be, I don’t feel access hasbeen provided to the children of minorities,” saidAnthony Jules, 35, of Jersey City, N.J., a computerprogrammer for a financial firm. “If we had access, wewould flourish in this sport.”
Jules, who attended the Ashe celebration with hiswife, Charlene, and 18-month-old daughter, Erica, saidsuccess for blacks in tennis is at least “a generationaway.”
Dressed in his tennis whites, Mashiska Washington heldhis protest placard aloft as fans passed by,occasionally glancing at him. He was asked why, withthe success he and his brother had achieved, he didn’twork 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 GrandSlam singles tournament in the past year?
“The system had nothing to do with them,” MashiskaWashington said.
The tournament directors “threw wild cards at thembecause they wanted to see them fail,” said WilliamWashington, insisting that tennis authorities wereangry at the Williams sisters’ father, Richard, whokept his daughters out of tournament competition forseveral years.
“Thank goodness they were strong enough to win,” hesaid.
When the Open starts here on Monday, Venus Williams,the Wimbledon champion, will begin play as the thirdseed. Her sister Serena, the defending U.S. Openchampion, is seeded fifth.