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Advantage Tennis: Improving Game's Racial Disparity

Serena Williams, left, and Venus Williams compete in Wimbledon at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (AP)

Venus and Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens and Donald Young will be among those vying for Grand Slam Glory at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which start Monday at Flushing Meadows in New York.

Those four are the only African-Americans who rank among the top 100 men's and women's players in the country at this stage. Some tennis enthusiasts say the game has got to do better than that – and they are working at the grassroots to level the playing ground.

Take the nonprofit Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, which gives free tennis lessons to kids, while providing academic help and all-around mentoring.

"We are really trying to improve the life of minority kids and poor kids in the city," says Program Director Willis Thomas. "Most of our programs are in wards that have a lack of a lot of opportunities, especially in tennis."

Bob Davis, president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, played junior doubles with Arthur Ashe. He recalls the discrimination he faced.

"Back in the days of my junior experience, you could enter a tournament and once they got a look at you and found out that you were of color or black, they would just simply deny access to your entry," he says. "You just couldn't play."

Although the sport has come a long way since then, Davis says many minorities are still being left behind. Between training and tournaments, getting good comes at a high cost.

"You're looking at $40,[000] or $50,[000] or $60[000] or $100,000 a year to be a competitive junior tennis player," Davis says. "How many minority families where the average income is around $35,000 can afford that?"

The U.S. Tennis Association, the national governing body of the sport, is working to diversify the game: It's giving out grants and introducing programs to underserved areas.

"We want to make tennis look like America when it comes to cultural backgrounds," Vice President Katrina Adams says.

But Adams notes being introduced to the sport and getting to the professional level are two different things.

"There is a lot of education that has to be put forth in a grassroots level so that the kids and the parents alike understand what it takes to excel in the sport," she says.

WTEF's Thomas says creating pro players isn't the group's focus.

"Our measure of success is they become good taxpaying citizens," he says. "We want them to go to college. We're not interested in them being tennis champions. If one comes along, fine."

He says tennis instills valuable attributes in the kids, "thinking for yourself and being able to count on yourself to persevere. We hope they take that to the classroom."

Charrisha Watkins was introduced to the WTEF at age 4, on a field trip. She liked the game and kept at it. It helped get her into a private high school, where she excelled on the team. At age 20, she's now a student at Gettysburg College.

When asked where she would be if she hadn't gotten involved with the WTEF and tennis she says, "I don't know. It's like my second home. It's like everything that I do kind of like ties to them, somehow."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

The U.S. Open begins tomorrow, and the best players in the world will all be vying for grand slam glory, including Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Donald Young. Those are the only four African-Americans who rank in the top 100 players in this country. So why do African-Americans make up just 4 percent of the best tennis pros? That's a question of history, access and opportunity.

As NPR's Amy Held reports, some tennis enthusiasts are working to level the playing court.

AMY HELD, BYLINE: On a cicada-filled August morning, a group of kids hit the tennis courts for practice.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Out. Three-zero.

HELD: They're at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit gives free tennis lessons to kids while helping them with school and mentoring them. Willis Thomas is program director.

WILLIS THOMAS: We are really trying to improve the life of minority kids and poor kids in the city. Most of our program are in wards that have a lack of a lot of opportunities, especially in tennis.

HELD: And in an effort to reach more of these kids, the WTEF is moving to a bigger facility in DC, closer to their neighborhoods. Bob Davis has been involved in tennis since he was a child himself, playing junior doubles with Arthur Ashe. He's 68 now and president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame.

BOB DAVIS: Back in the days of my junior experience, you could enter a tournament, and once they got a look at you and found out that you were of color or black, they would just simply deny access to your entry. You just couldn't play.

HELD: And while tennis has come a long way since then, Davis says minorities are still left behind. Between training and tournaments, getting really good doesn't come cheap.

DAVIS: You're looking at 40 or 50 or 60 or $100,000 a year to be a competitive junior tennis player. How many minority families, where the average income is around $35,000, can afford that?

HELD: The United States Tennis Association is seeking to diversify the sport: giving out multicultural grants and introducing programs to under-served neighborhoods. Katrina Adams is the Vice President.

KATRINA ADAMS: We want to make tennis look like America when it comes to cultural backgrounds, but there's a big difference between being introduced to the sport, and then maintaining a certain level or growing to be the player that you become to be a professional.

HELD: Back at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Willis Thomas says the focus isn't so much on the kids winning trophies.

THOMAS: Our measure of success is they become good tax-paying citizens. We want them to go to college. We're not interested in them being champions. If one comes along, fine.

HELD: Charrisha Watkins learned about the WTEF on a field trip when she was 4. She's 20 now, and if it weren't for that trip, she may never have picked up a racket.

CHARRISHA WATKINS: There were no tennis courts in the area. All you had was basketball courts.

HELD: But she liked the game and stuck with it. It helped get her into a private high school and then on to Gettysburg College, where she's now studying organization and management.

If you hadn't gotten involved with WTEF and tennis, where do you think you would be?

(LAUGHTER)

WATKINS: I don't know. This was like my second home. It's like everything that I do kind of like ties to them somehow. So I don't know.

HELD: Summers, she comes back and coaches a new round of kids.

WATKINS: I push them as much as I was pushed when I was younger, along with making it fun because they're young so that they feel like they're working too hard, they'll lose interest.

HELD: It is fun for 13-year old Jasmine Everts(ph).

JASMINE EVERTS: I like tennis because you can take time and think about things in life while you're playing it and enjoy.

HELD: She is still thinking about whether she wants to play professionally, and she has a couple women to look up to.

EVERTS: Serena Williams and my grandma. She's really good. She's 90 years old, and she plays tennis five times a week here.

HELD: Amy Held, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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