Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and story lines from the world of men’s tennis.
In February, we celebrate Black History Month by making a commitment to learn more about the stories that Black communities in Canada and elsewhere have to share about their histories, their successes, their challenges, and their culture.
I spoke recently to Canadian Historian and High School History teacher Tim Stewart who explained to me that here in Canada we had a Black History week in the past, and then in 1976 that was unofficially expanded into Black History Month. It was not until 1995, thanks to Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman to be elected as a member of Federal parliament, that a motion was passed in the House of Commons, formally recognizing February as Black History Month in our country.
This week, therefore, I’d like to focus my “Inside the Lines” column for the National Bank Open on the impact that Black tennis players have had on the sport. I’ll examine some of the most influential male tennis players from the Black community while my colleague Paul Rivard takes a look at some on the female side of the game in his weekly piece.
This first name that comes to my mind when discussing Black tennis players is the legendary Arthur Ashe. Though he was before my time, his impact on the sport is immeasurable and even those who became fans of the sport after his professional career ended at the end of the 1970s have knowledge of his exploits.
Ashe was the first Black man to win the singles championship at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open as well as the first Black man to make the United States Davis Cup team.
Off the court, he was a leading force in the fight against AIDS and, after he courageously announced his own battle with the illness in 1992, became a leading advocate to raise awareness of both HIV and AIDS. He started his own charitable foundation: the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS before he passed away at the age of 49 in 1993.
Ashe was a pioneer and inspiration for young Black tennis players and because of his incredible achievements both on and off the court, many have followed in his footsteps as a result of what he accomplished.
For me, Malivai Washington was the first Black professional tennis player on the ATP that I remember being a big fan of. I recall fondly watching his Cinderella run to the finals of Wimbledon in 1996 which was one of the highlights of his career.
Along the way, he defeated the No. 9 seed Tomas Enqvist in the second round and later needed back-to-back five set wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals to advance to the championship match. In the semis he had an epic battle against fellow American Todd Martin where he narrowly prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3, 10-8, before falling to the big-serving Richard Krajicek in the finals.
One of the last matches of Washington’s career, which ended in 1999, was against James Blake who would himself reached a career high of No. 4 on the ATP Tour in 2006. Blake was a member of the US team that won the Davis Cup in 2007 and he made three Grand Slam quarterfinals in his playing career.
Today, on top of being an active father to his two daughters, he’s the tournament director of the Miami Open, is very active in the promotion of civil liberties and equality and is also a published author of a book entitled, “Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.”
In Canada of course, we are blessed at the moment to have Felix Auger-Aliassime, one of the best tennis players in the world and someone who has already done so much in his young career off the court to help youth in the Black Community. It was a year ago that Felix captured his first career ATP title in Rotterdam, right in the middle of Black History month too!
Despite being just 22 years old, the young Canadian is already one of the brightest stars on the men’s tour and he’s enjoyed several solid accomplishments both on and off the court. Last Fall, nobody was hotter on the ATP Tour than Auger Aliassime, who won three consecutive titles and reached a career high ranking of No. 6.
Off the court, his foundation helps promote the importance of education for youth in the African country of Togo (where his father is from) and he often makes off-season visits there to talk and play with the kids in those communities.
For those of us outside of the Black Community looking to be allies and for ways we can be supportive, I turned to Auger-Aliassime on an appearance of his on Match Point Canada.
“It’s important of having no taboo to speak about it,” he told me about racism and allyship. “I like the fact that we can speak about it now, not have any weird feelings about it. We can be physically different but we should never feel afraid or shy and to open up.”
It goes without saying that young tennis players in the Black community feel the impact when they see others who they can identify with who have made it in professional tennis. Indeed, Auger-Aliassime has said that he himself picked up a racquet because of the likes of those who came before him that he could relate to.
“In tennis, there are big, big pioneers like Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah and the Williams sisters. I like to think that because of these people, people like me and others can really believe and dream to play at a high level in a sport like tennis,” Auger-Aliassime said last year during Black History Month.
For those looking to learn some more about the many great Black tennis players from past and present, here’s a fantastic link from the International Tennis Hall of Fame that shares some of the most influential and talented Black tennis players that is well worth a look.