The woman wearing maize and blue celebrated her moment knowing she had made history, but not quite knowing the full extent of the story.
When her opponent’s forehand down the line finally floated long, Brienne Minor simply offered a joyful, graceful toss of her racket, a double fist-pump at shoulder level and a single clap in front of her chest. Then off to the net to shake hands. She kept her head down for the first few steps — best not to smile too big in front of the runner-up.
Minor had always been quiet and humble, the third in a line of tennis-playing sisters from Mundelein, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. But if she ever had a reason to lose her composure, to rip the neatly knotted bun at the nape of her neck loose and really go berserk, it would have been on that muggy Monday last month in Georgia when Minor captured the NCAA singles title and became Michigan’s first national champion in the sport.
That accounts for History Made: Part One.
Part Two is a doozy.
The 19-year-old is the first African American woman to win an NCAA Division I singles championship. She is the first black player to win a Division I singles title for either men or women since Arthur Ashe in 1965.
“I didn’t even realize it until my sister said something to me a couple days later,” Minor said over the phone, having closed out the school year and driven the five hours or so from Ann Arbor, Mich., to her home town for a two-week break from tennis. “It’s such an honor, and I hope I can be a good role model for other African American tennis players, because there’s not a lot in this game.”
Nor has there ever been, despite superstars Venus and Serena Williams and their countrywomen Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend holding down American women’s tennis in the pros. In the collegiate ranks, 354 out of 8,591 female tennis players during the 2015-16 season were black. That’s 4.1 percent across all three divisions, excluding historically black colleges and universities.
At first, Minor, her family and her coaches were too consumed by her run through the tournament to consider the improbable odds.
Minor was tired, physically and emotionally, following her two-week sojourn in Athens, Ga., which included the team tournament. As an unseeded sophomore in the individual event, she won six matches in six days. She had already toppled two top-16 seeds by the time she got to the championship match May 29. There, she upset No. 6 Belinda Woolcock, from Florida’s powerhouse program, 6-3, 6-3.
It wasn’t until dinner a few hours later that her father, Kevin, grew curious about other black women who had won the singles title. He knew of others in doubles — most famously, U.S. Tennis Association President Katrina Adams was the first black woman to win that tournament, for Northwestern in 1987 — but his research showed that for singles, his daughter was the first.
He held off telling Minor until he and Mark Bey, the daughters’ private coach, had confirmed his initial look. Then one of his older daughters told Minor over the phone.
“I didn’t want to talk about it with a bunch of people if that wasn’t the case,” Kevin Minor said. “I was in a little bit of disbelief that, here it is, 2017, and there wasn’t someone else. I didn’t want to make it bigger than it was. I didn’t want to make this all of a sudden a more monumental occasion if it wasn’t true. But for us, it’s a big deal.”
To a young Brienne Minor, tennis was simply what her family did. Her passion for the game was passed down from her maternal grandfather, who picked up tennis in parks in Indianapolis at a time when blacks were barred from the country clubs that held lessons and tournaments. The USTA, then known as the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, held a policy that banned blacks from playing in its championships, including the U.S. Open, until the 1950s.
Yet James Minnefield passed his love of the sport on to his children, and Minor’s mother, Michelle, passed it on to her daughters.
Before Brienne was old enough to play tournaments, she was being toted along as big sister Kristina and middle sister Jasmine competed on the USTA junior’s circuit, which demands year-round travel. The five Minors went everywhere together, improvising Thanksgiving dinner on the road and celebrating Christmas a day early for 15 years because USTA National Winter Championships in Arizona required travel on the holiday itself.
“You get to be a Priceline master,” explained Kevin Minor, who, like Michelle, graduated from Purdue with an engineering degree and has spent his career in the field. “I didn’t spend a dollar without getting frequent flier or loyalty points.”
By the time she was 5, Brienne began playing competitively, just like her older sisters. They planned what would happen were they ever to face one another in a Grand Slam, and talked of being the next Williams sisters. “We were serious!” Brienne said. “Well, it was kind of a joke but also definitely serious.”
Soon, lessons, trainers, tournaments and travel dominated life so much that Kevin Minor had to resort to putting the five family members’ schedules into a spreadsheet. When travel was heaviest, the father worked remotely from tournament sites. Both parents shifted schedules as often as they could to account for tennis lessons 45 minutes away from home. Tennis played a part in where the girls went to high school — a private Catholic school that didn’t require a P.E. class every semester, like the public schools did.
When she was 13, Minor so yearned for a reprieve from her jam-packed schedule and travel demands she thought about giving up tennis, but she never did. A life without the sport was unimaginable.
Although tennis wielded an unbreakable power, academics were also held at a premium in the Minor household. Report cards, though they come electronically now, are printed out and stuck to the fridge to this day.
“The goal [with tennis] that we had was, at a minimum — just because of the time and money that you put into it — the minimum was to have a full-ride college scholarship at a good university at the end,” Kevin Minor said. “Anything after that was a dream and a bonus.”
The Minor sisters were an anomaly at the higher ranks of the junior circuit. Kevin Minor can’t remember a national tournament in which there were more than two or three black faces aside from his daughters in a 64- or 128-player draw. On the circuit, neither overt racism — nor the kind that lurks beneath cordiality but cuts just as deep — was an issue for the family. But his daughters were often out there alone, so he gave them a speech anyway:
“Know who you are. Be proud of who you are. Some things you might ignore, but other things you have to speak out about.”
For Brienne, the overwhelming whiteness of tennis was simply a reality, part of the lifestyle. Serena Williams’s fame reached a fever pitch and the upper echelon of American women’s tennis grew dotted with women who looked more like her, but in Minor’s day-to-day life, she remained one of few.
“I’ve just been used to it, I’ve just been playing tennis for so long,” Minor said of the lack of minority participation in the sport. “I’ve been traveling, I’ve been to a lot of places in the U.S., I’ve seen a lot of girls at tournaments, and you just don’t see African Americans that often. But I’m so used to it, I don’t even think about it that much unless someone brings it up to me. It’s still kind of the same in college.”
Tennis’s progress in attracting, nurturing and retaining minority players has been incremental, at best.
As Minor grew up and had success on the juniors circuit and her high school team, where she was a quarterfinalist in the Illinois state championships as a sophomore, she noticed a few more black girls competing in the junior tournaments. But not many.
Though black women make up such a small percentage of competitors in collegiate tennis, it is a bump from 3.7 percent in 2011-12 and 2 percent in the 1999-2000 season, when Venus and Serena Williams first appeared together in the top 10 of the professional rankings.
The numbers are lower for men’s tennis, which has fewer scholarships than the women’s side. Out of the 7,842 male college tennis players in 2015-16, just 218 were black. That’s 2.8 percent, barely up from 2.3 percent in 2011-12 and 1.6 percent in the 1999-2000 season.
Lack of diversity in American tennis is usually explained by a few factors, including the sport’s racist history. But there’s also the cost compared with other sports such as football and basketball: To reach the highest levels, you need not just a racket but lessons, a coach, a trainer and the ability to, in most cases, travel year-round. In American men’s tennis, there also exists the argument that for a family to invest their time and energy into the infinitesimal chance that their child could be a professional athlete, his chances of making a football or basketball roster are much higher than of him making his money in an individual sport.
For Minor, the question of diversity in tennis gives her pause.
In relation to her achievement as the first black woman singles champion, her excitement is apparent: She speaks more quickly, her words tumbling over one another. When speaking to her by phone, you can envision her eyes widening.
“I’m really proud. Tennis is everything to me,” Minor said. “And I am pretty young, but I hope one day I can be a role model just for younger girls, younger players looking up to somebody. I hope I can send that message that anyone can do it, it doesn’t matter what race you are. It does mean a lot to me.”
But pressure doesn’t weigh on her. Despite the fact that high-achieving black tennis players are a rarity from the junior circuit on up, perhaps the last word Minor would use to describe her tennis career is “lonely.”
“I honestly don’t think — I don’t really focus that much on that kind of thing,” Minor said after a long pause to consider her answer. “I don’t focus on, ‘Oh, I’m a black female tennis player.’ I just play to play and do the best I can.” She paused. “I don’t know! I don’t know. It just is.”
For now, Minor is on a two-week hiatus before tennis life picks up again. She expects to receive a wild-card entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open that the USTA customarily awards college champions. After she completes her degree at Michigan, she plans on turning pro.
There, she’ll walk the narrow path as a college graduate trying to find success on the WTA tour. But the odds don’t scare Minor; she knows that most of the top professional women turn pro in their teens. Minor proceeds, informed by the past, yet undaunted.