A capacity crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadow watches the U.S. Open men's final, enthralled by the power and grace of hard-court tennis. In the sticky part of the match -- 3-3, fifth set -- they choose sides, cheering and applauding first one, then the other. The finalists are neither Bjorn Borg nor John McEnroe, but black products of the National Junior Tennis League and the nation's public parks.
A farfetched scenario? Perhaps. But in the last five years the number of blacks playing the game has increased tremendously. Following the traditional college team-to-satellite circuit route, they are easing into the upper echelons of the sport.
Twenty-four black men and women currently hold points issued by the computers of the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women's Tennis Association. However, there is only one black man in the top 100 -- 15th-ranked Yannick Noah -- and two women -- Leslie Allen (19) and Rene Blount. Other than Noah and Allen, their names are generally unfamiliar to the public.
They play matches around the world, but only three have won tournaments of note. Another Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe has yet to come forward.
Will the day come when blacks dominate tennis the way they dominate the National Basketball Association?
"No," Ashe said recently. "Tennis is an international sport played on a variety of surfaces. They would have to dominate players from all over the world."
"Tennis is an individual sport," said Bobby Johnson, a venerable tennis figure in the Washington community who coordinated the NJTL in Washington in 1969-1970 and, along with his father Doc, took Gibson and Ashe when they were young athletes and brought them to world prominence. "There is just not the same interest in seeking out black players as there is in finding someone 6-foot-8 to plug a hole in a team sport."
The NJTL was thought to be a good vehicle for bringing young black players up through the ranks. For 12 years, the Washington chapters have put rackets in the hands of about 7,000 area children.
There are scholarships to tennis camps and private schools, but they are offered to a handful of players and only after three years in the program.
"Why not 6,000 novices and 1,000 advanced players," asked Johnson.
The lack of an advanced NJTL program also bothered Eddie Davis, Howard's tennis coach. After guiding the Bison to a 20-13 record last year, he initiated one.
"The concept of the NJTL is good for the game," he said. "It exposes all kinds of children to the game, and that is what it was set up to do. But if you want to be world class, you've got to go for more."
His tennis camp, at the Rock Creek Park facility, gave 20 advanced juniors all the "more" they could handle this summer: six weeks of intensive drills, strategies, fierce practice sessions.
"There is so much talent in MALTA (the Middle Atlantic Tennis Association) that has never been fully developed," said Davis. " . . . Just look at the number of tennis scholarships . . . Jesse Holt Jr. . . . Joe Ragland . . . George Martin . . . Rodney Harmon . . . just imagine where they might be now if they had gone to an advanced camp four or five years ago."
Last year, the NJTL inaugurated the Congoleum Future Champions competition to allow playground-level players 12 and younger to compete with children of similar ability, not only from their own neighborhoods but from other parts of the country.
A field of 50 boy-girl teams from 15 areas was narrowed to four teams that played in the finals in New York. The winning team won the Arthur Ashe trophy.
This year, a Washington team has designs on that trophy. Todd Byron and Jerri Ingram, both 10, will go to New York this week to compete with 15 other teams.
Jake Wells, a program director for the Washington chapter of the NJTL, saw Ingram win an NJTL event at Anacostia Park, and teamed her with Byron, a sixth-grader at Randall High and a three-year veteran of NJTL competition. They were designated regional representatives at a competition held during the Washington Star tournament.