In Area Tennis, Advantage Diversity

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

The lanky blond slammed a forehand to win the point, and spectators at the Legg Mason tennis tournament responded with low whistles and demure applause.

When his muscular, spiky-haired opponent won a point, a cadre of red-shirted fans did just about the opposite. From a corner of the bleachers at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Northwest Washington, they erupted in screams and slapped inflated "bam-bam" sticks together, sending a tinny drumbeat through the evening air, and generally went nuts over Thai player Paradorn Srichaphan.

"When I say P, you say Dorn!" someone shouted. The group obliged. Members of the boisterous crew at last week's second-round match were leaders and friends of the Fairfax-based Thai Tennis Organization in America, which over the past four years has burst onto the region's community tennis scene with fervor.

When Janine Underwood looks at the rowdy group in the bleachers, she sees more than fervent Srichaphan fans. She sees one of the nation's best illustrations of a goal that her employer, the United States Tennis Association, is shooting for. She sees more diversity in tennis, starting with grass-roots multicultural tennis groups, which are burgeoning in the region.

That's right, the Thais are not the only ones.

Out of their Montgomery Village home, Sonia Sekhar, 20, and her father run the Indian Tennis Association, which began as a social group and now hosts a yearly South Asian tennis tournament in Falls Church. The regionwide Filipino-American Tennis Organization boasts two men's league teams and hopes to start a youth program that combines lessons in tennis and Filipino culture. Fredericksburg resident Eben Donkor, 30, heads the Ghana Tennis Association-Abroad, whose primary activity is a tournament to raise money for a children's tournament in Ghana, though Donkor hopes to inspire his two daughters and other black children to pursue tennis careers.

"I see that if I set the example, it will turn more people into believers," Donkor said.

Venus and Serena Williams and James Blake, who are black, are among the top professional tennis players. But tennis, with its country club and dress code image, has long been dominated in the United States by players who are white and are richer and more likely to live in the suburbs than most Americans. According to USTA survey data for 2005, 87 percent of players nationwide were white, 10 percent were black and 2 percent were Asian. Thirteen percent identified themselves as Hispanic. More than 40 percent of players had household incomes above $75,000. One-third lived in suburbs.

Some attribute those demographics to the expense, particularly at the competitive level, which requires money for coaching and tournament fees. Others point to a lack of minority role models: Though their numbers are growing, few top professional players are Asian, black or Latino. Some immigrants note that the sport is not very popular in their countries, or it is out of reach.

"It's popular, but it's very high class," Annandale resident Hai Tran, 48, chairman of the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section's multicultural participation committee, said of tennis in his native Vietnam. "In Vietnam, it's going to be very hard to get the tennis court."

But the USTA says there is improvement in this country. Surveys in recent years have shown that about one-third of first-time players were minorities. To boost tennis playing among minorities, the USTA sponsors programs -- in June, it paired with the District's Latin American Youth Center to offer a three-week tennis camp to Latino middle-schoolers in Ward 4 -- and gives grants to community tennis associations.

"We're getting all of them to network," said Underwood, executive director of the USTA's Virginia District, which hired a production company to make a promotional video about the Thai group, "to kind of show the other community tennis associations what they can do. The possibilities are endless."

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