The score is 40-30, advantage Peter Hall. The tall, slender tenth grader pauses to glance at the two dozen other kids on nearby courts and brush away a few bothersome gnats. He tightens the grip on his racquet and tosses up a ball. Whop. His serve whistles over the net, nipping the outside line. His opponent lunges with a backhand and barely connects. The ball floats up and over. Peter moves in for the kill. Whop. A yellow blur rockets cross-court. Game. Set. Peter grins and heads for the net.
Ten years ago, the scene here at 16th and Kennedy was different. The courts were the same, but the kids weren't. Peter and his friends are black. During the '60s, an urban black interested in serious play faced some tough problems. In most areas, public courts were non-existent. The place to play was at suburban country clubs, which for a black kid was no place at all. Cost was another barrier. How to pay for rental fees, equipment, clothes and transportation, especially when top-level competition was still on an amateur, non-paying basis? The answer was basketball with the gang down at the playground.
For years that was the pattern. Tennis was the bastion of the privileged, a sport where "tennis whites" meant more than just proper attire for the courts. In some ways, 1968 was a turning point for both tennis in general and minority representation in specific. That was the year of the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills, the first tourament in America offering professional prize money. And that was the year a black man broke the race barrier by winning that tournament. Arthur Ashe had been making news since the early '60s as the upstart kid from Richmond, but now he had captured the top U.S. title. The victory emphasized in his mind the still-existing problems:
"When I won the U.S. Open in 1968, I realized it was impossible for young blacks to repeat my victory," Ashe later remembers in a telephone conversation. "It just wasn't there if they wanted to reach the top. The courts, the money, the competition, the equipment - it just wasn't there." Donald Dell, Ashe's friend/agent/lawyer and fellow player also recalls the times: "Before '68, the whole circuit was on grass courts at private clubs. Arthure had to fight to get an invitation at some tournaments as late as 1965."
As public interest in the sport grew in the years that followed, so did sponsorship dollars. Larger tournament prizes in turn drew big names and spurred public interest. More public meant more money, and more money meant more public. As this professional tennis boom grew, enthusiasm for the sport filtered down into the middle-class and the city. More and more public courts appeared, as well as new indoor clubs open to anyone.
Dell points out that this increased access to the sport was accompanied by new economic incentives for serious young players:
"At clinics Arthur and I used to give in the inner city, kids would always ask Arthur how much money he made. In 1968, he was a second lieutenant playing amateur tennis. In 1969 he could tell them $57,000 a year, later $75,000. Now he could say $950,000. It doesn't take a Phi Beta Kappa to realize that's three times the amount of most other pros."
Ashe feels much the same: "Pro tennis has come of age. It's very visible and highly organized, with $12 million in prize money each year. You're not going to ignore that, no matter who you are."
Peter Hall is not ignoring that either. Like many up and coming players, he follows the sport on TV and in the papers, and knows the opportunities it can offer. "When I get to high school, I'd like to play for the team there. Beyond that. . .I'd like to go professional.I'd also like a college scholarship." Peter is luckier than many. His father is a physical education director and both parents play tennis. They're encouraging but realistic about the road to the pros.
Peter's ambitions in part exemplify the attitude changes responsible for this new interest in tennis among young blacks. A few weekends back, he and his parents drove to New Jersey to have a look at Princeton.
"The campus is really great and I met some of the faculty heads. I've been thinking of going to UCLA since I was really small, but since I've seen Princeton, it's changed my whole view." In the past, he and his friends might have looked to a team-oriented UCLA, a school big on football and basketball. But now, "I like to be more on my own, independent. With team sports you're dependent on the other players. Thisway if you mess up you know you made the mistake and not someone else on the team."
One of the major factors in Peter's growth as a player is an organization Ashe helped found in 1969. The National Junior Tennis League began with the goal of a broad-based involvement of urban youth at all levels in the sport.
"It succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," Ashe says. "Today we have 102 chapters all over the country." In Washington alone, the program grew from 300 kids in 1970 to over 3,000 in 1978 at about 30 different locations.
The League provides free courts, racquets and balls to anyone 8 to 18, gives them a little initial instruction, and allows them to compete right away. As might be expected, these sessions four days a week are more than just exercise. NJTL is an entire social scene, a place to meet friends, something to do in the summer. The idea is to have fun, not to build champions.
"NJTL doesn't try to produce another Jimmy Connors or Christ Evert," Ashe explains. "It's not trying to take a kid from 14th and U all the way to Wimbledon. It just introduces tennis to kids that ordinarily wouldn't be able to play. We feel extremely lucky if we can get him a college scholarship. That's success for us."
Doris Harrison, president of NJTL's Washington chapter, holds mush of same philosophy. "Not everyone is going to win the big one, but there are now opportunities to teach and coach. Kids can find their place in pro shops, court maintenance, jobs in clubs, stringing racquets, managing clubs. . .For those who demonstrate leadership, we feed them back into the training system or get them tennis related jobs."
As these new channels of economic and social mobility open up, Harrison often notes a shift in the outlook of students involved.
"There is a change in their attitude and whole attack on life, particularly in the inner city areas, that often carries over into school. Many come out of an environment condusive to problems. Many are potential dropouts. Now they have new aspirations, new incentives for jobs in this area."
Harrison also feels increased media coverage and national events held on public courts have particularly helped interest area kids. "When they observe pros at events like the Washington Star Tournament, they seem a little more human. A lot are products of public courts, and many have relevant employment. That puts things in focus." Many of the students serve as ball boys and girls at the Star Tournament, which concludes this weekend at 16th and Kennedy.
For those like Peter who contemplate more serious play, the NJTL local programs are not enough. Individual lessons, small groups and indoor tournaments are a few options, or they can turn to Frank Dickey, a local pro who coaches NJTL's advanced program year-round at the Hillcrest Heights courts in Anacostia. Dickey faced many of the same problems Ashe did as a young black player from the south. "I taught myself until I went to college. There I could only play blacks, and the competition was somewhat limited in Mississippi. Today, the constraints are just in a different form, like economics in Washington. These kids would have been as deprived as I was in Mississippi without NJTL."
Image was another problem, Dickey said. "In the past, tennis did have an image of a sissy sport, with meek athletes. Eight or nine years ago, it was associated with middle-class values.Now it's appealing to anyone. A large number of basketball players old and young are playing tennis. They can see the skills in tennis are applicable to other sports."
But Dickey's interests in the sport lie beyond the purely physical.As the assistant director of an education opportunity center in Anacostia, he often combines his two jobs. "We don't try to impress tennis as a total goal, we associate an educational goal with it. With 11th graders, we hook them up with the program so they can learn about colleges and their scholarship programs. We use tennis as an incentive - it's definitely a means to an end."
Today, the scene is different from the one in 1968. Now it includes established tennis programs for beginning city youth, follow-up training, and new access to amateur and pro tournaments. But it also includes shrinking public funds, difficulty in finding volunteers and increasingly tight court space. "We would like to see 10 blacks in the top 50," speculates Dell. "But we need 25 more Ashes. We're not there yet, but we're making progress." And NJTL is only one program, but Dickey feels it's an important one: "There's the possibility of NJTL taking more of a lead in helping kids shape their lives. The D.C. public schools are thinking about cutting out their programs, and we could pick them up. Our value could go up 10 fold."