NEW YORK -- Lori McNeil's spectacular solo at the U.S. Open is over now, but the melody lingers on, strutting hot and smart through Louis Armstrong Stadium like it had come from Satchmo's own horn. She beat her close friend and doubles partner, Zina Garrison, the seventh seed, which may not have been a big upset. But her next win surely was, because in the quarters McNeil beat Chris Evert, the legendary Chris Evert, who'd been to this tournament 16 times before and never failed to reach the semis. And 32 years old or not, a win over Chris Evert is something to be framed and hung. Then Friday McNeil came tantalizingly close -- as close perhaps as a third-set forehand volley -- to an even bigger upset, the cashiering of Steffi Graf, the first seed.
And because she is a fresh, new face in a sport monotonously dominated by old, familiar ones, we read a lot about Lori McNeil this week: how she learned the game in a public park in Houston; how her father, Charlie, was once a defensive back on the San Diego Chargers; and how she and Garrison were taught by John Wilkerson, who ran a free program at McGregor Park.
And in the course of these stories we read that McNeil was the first black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to reach the semifinals of the U.S. national championships. That's 29 years ago, six years before McNeil was even born. "She was before my time," McNeil said yesterday. "But I've read a lot about her."
Because she is black, McNeil is often asked about, and compared to, Gibson, as if they're links in the same chain. Wilkerson, who at 48 may be better able to appreciate the athletic and cultural scope of Gibson's accomplishments, says the comparisons are a compliment: "It's like asking a young baseball player if he's the next Babe Ruth." But perhaps it's unfair to raise the issue to McNeil. She never saw Gibson play. She patterned her game after more contemporary players; the ones she liked best, she said, were "the aggressive ones like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe."
In a way it tells us how far we've come with race relations when a young black athlete would un-self-consciously pattern her game after white athletes. But in a way it tells us how far we still have to go that it took 29 years between black women making the semifinals of this tournament. Gibson and Arthur Ashe remain the only blacks to win the national championship. And whenever a young black tennis player makes a splash such as this, invariably two questions are asked:
Is this the start of a trend?
And, why is this taking so long?
Wilkerson believes there are lots of potential black champions out there, and the problem is strictly one of a lack of adequate public facilities. Bring the game to the people, and they will embrace it. He did.
Ashe is happy to see McNeil and Garrison do so well, but he isn't convinced McNeil's showing will influence young black males toward tennis. "Black America is still very male chauvinistic-oriented when it comes to sports," Ashe said. "For this to be truly path-finding it would help if Lori were a man . . . Tennis is still thought of as a sissy sport -- blood doesn't flow." Ashe shrugged his shoulders and daydreamed about the impact "a Michael Jordan or an O.J. Simpson" might have. "Then you'd see some ground-breaking," Ashe said. Ashe believes that young black women are more receptive to tennis than young black men and predicts that "seven of the next 10 good black players will be female."
For many years now Ashe has tried to spread the gospel of tennis to the black community, to make inroads in the urban areas where the sports of choice among blacks have been basketball, football and track. "I look at Jackie Joyner-Kersee and foam at the mouth at the thought of her with a racket in her hand," Ashe said. "Or Michael Jordan. We tend to do best in those sports that are first played on public courts and stressed in public schools. They're free. If you've got to fork up some money, you've lost us. We don't have the money." Tennis still suffers from an elitist, country club image, and, indeed, lessons are costly. You have to pay a pro to teach you. Basketball lessons, on the other hand, are free. The public schools pay coaches to teach you.
It was Wilkerson's specific aim to develop minority tennis players when he took over the McGregor Park program in Houston. At first Wilkerson charged a fee for lessons, but he soon found he "wasn't getting the players I wanted. I was getting doctors' and lawyers' kids. So I went to a free program." McNeil and Garrison are the most prominent tennis players Wilkerson has produced, but he says they were not his best prospects. "My best kids didn't stay with it," Wilkerson said. They were lured away by basketball and track.
But perhaps this is changing. Althea Gibson came along at a time when tennis was strictly amateur. She was an inspirational champion, but not a practical one. There was no economic advantage to playing tennis. Arthur Ashe came along when there was money to be made, but the sport wasn't nearly as ripe with riches or television exposure as it is now.
There are still inequities that blacks face. Can it truly be coincidence that as of Friday Garrison and McNeil were the only female players ranked in the top 20 without a clothing endorsement? But each day the door gets opened a little wider and more people peek inside. McNeil can't even imagine what it was like for Gibson, how it was that an athlete's behavior and social graces could be examined as thoroughly as her athletic skills. "It's a different time now," McNeil says innocently. And Ashe can only imagine what tennis might look like if blacks found it as appealing as basketball. "What I'm saying," Ashe said, giggling, "is give us half a chance and we'll take over."