“The Privilege of Play” is a Yahoo Sports series examining the barriers minority groups face in reaching elite levels of competition.
At a park on 135th Street in Harlem, Donovan Spigner was teaching his tennis lessons when a young Black boy stopped to watch in wonderment. With little hesitation, he handed a racket to the boy who looked like him and asked if he wanted to try it out.
“I hit with him for no more than 30 minutes. And now I see him like every other day hitting with his mom on the mini courts,” Spigner, 16, told Yahoo Sports on a video call. “Stuff like that it just makes me so happy. He probably wouldn’t have the chance to just play tennis or [have it] introduced to him.”
Spigner is a superstar to kids in the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program (HJTEP) for his play around the world in International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior tournaments. The game has taken him from a toddler in Harlem to a young man stopping down in Ecuador, Barbados and the Virgin Islands. He is focused on the game itself, banking on successes it will bring, but when he looks around at these tournaments he can’t help but notice the dearth of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).
“When I was around 14 I felt like there was a period of time where I felt like I didn’t belong playing the sport,” Spigner said. “It was like, I felt weird. I would see all these people but none of them looked like me. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”
It isn’t until promising tennis players begin playing larger tournaments outside of their area that the number of BIPOC players drops. Tennis programs are a popular way to teach kids life lessons and help with schoolwork in underserved communities, yet the number of BIPOC American tennis players in the top-100 rankings is low.
An obvious reason for that is the money it takes to compete, just as in sports like soccer and even basketball that come with cost for everyone. But there’s more to it, former professional player Katrina Adams told Yahoo Sports.
“It’s not so much about the socioeconomic background, because I think people have a tendency to say, ‘Oh the sport is too rich for Black people.’ Well we have some rich Black people,” said Adams, executive director of HJTEP who served an unprecedented two terms as U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) president. “And I don’t want it always to come down to socioeconomic disparity in our sport.”
A better place to start is role models, hence why the women’s side is faring better than the men’s side in American tennis. That plays into youth players deciding to stick with the sport that they might not view initially as fun or successful, a reason Spigner hands over his racket to inquiring minds. Finally, and detrimentally, it comes down to money.
Serena Williams brought Black girls into tennis
The 2020 U.S. Open showcased the sheer power of representation. It featured 12 Black American women in the singles draw — not including Naomi Osaka, who represents Japan — that accounted for nearly 10% of the field.
To see it is to be it.
“We’re seeing a lot of minorities at the top level of tennis on the women’s side, and we have for many years,” Adams told Yahoo Sports. “That’s a testament to really the success of what Venus and Serena [Williams] were able to do to be those role models for so many years.”
The younger players, such as 16-year-old Robin Montgomery, grew up with the Williams sisters dominating their screens. Since they could see that level of success from two Black women, both in matches and TV commercials, they saw a path they could follow.
“If you look at the number of Americans that we’ve had [and] you look at the number of those that are of color, the percentages are pretty good,” Adams said. “The key is to be able to keep that going for the next decade when there is no Venus and Serena.”
It’s different for the boys. Male tennis players aren’t heavily used in marketing and there isn’t a Black male tennis player that has broken through recently a la Williams. They instead see LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.
“They see Black men in other sports who they aspire to be versus being a tennis player,” Adams said. “And that’s where the challenge is for our males in our sport.”
Young boys are historically funneled into the major sports that are marketed heavily to them since near birth and that their fathers played before them. If they don’t see it, they won’t think to be it.
“A lot of our minority groups don’t see that representation of people to have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds to them in tennis. And we learn a lot from observing and modeling behaviors from other adults or our parents as well,” said Jennifer Roth, a Michigan State University professor who works in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “So we’re not seeing that representation in the media of elite tennis players and our parents didn’t have any experience in tennis and aren’t reinforcing playing tennis. Then it’s less likely those kids are even going to become interested to get involved in the first place.
“It’s kind of a cycle. The parents aren’t involved, the kids most likely won’t be involved, and then so on.”
It’s why Spigner takes it upon himself to give kids in the park the thrill of tennis for the first time.
“[I like] showing them there’s more to athleticism than basketball, football, baseball [and] the normal sports that everybody plays,” he said. “I feel like getting younger kids into tennis at that age would be ideal for the advancement of minorities in tennis.”
NJTL programs bring tennis to low-income areas
For all Adams knew growing up, tennis was a Black sport. The former world No. 8 in doubles got her start at courts on the west side of Chicago when her parents, both educators who didn’t play, put her older brothers in a tennis summer camp program. At 6 years old she convinced everyone to let her play and the players, the coaches, the competitors were all Black.
“Everyone’s talking about it being a white sport as I grew older and I thought, mmm, not so much. Not where I came from,” Adams, the first Chicago public school and Black singles champion in Illinois state history, told Yahoo Sports.
“People don’t realize how rich tennis is or was in the Black culture or the Black community,” she said. “And it’s something that, it’s still rich but it’s just not talked about enough.”
Her experience isn’t much different from that of Donovan’s mother, Simone Spigner, a HJTEP graduate who attended college on a tennis scholarship and now works in the organization. She grew up playing it as a family recreational activity. Donovan, she joked, was born on the tennis court since she continued coaching until she was seven months pregnant.
Tennis is a steady game at the youth level and more than 4.64 million children between the age of 6 and 17 played in 2018, according to the annual Tennis Industry Association participation report. It’s difficult to find current ethnicity demographics. A 2013 USTA Serves report found that 9% of all white U.S. adolescents participated in tennis while 5% of Black adolescents and 6% of Latinos did so. Of all tennis participants, 77% are white, 14% are Latino and 9% are Black.
Latino participation increased while Adams was president thanks to USTA outreach grants aimed at the demographic and bilingual coaching and marketing. Overall youth participation can be directly attributed to the USTA’s National Junior Tennis Learning (NJTL) network that celebrated its 50th year in 2019. More than 250 nonprofit organizations, including HJTEP, bring programs to thousands of under-resourced youths.
Frances Tiafoe, a Black player who in 2019 became the first male American Grand Slam quarterfinalist since 2003, played at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland where his father was head of maintenance. Robin Montgomery, the youngest player in the 2020 US Open field, plays at the same NJTL.
Tennis is relatively inexpensive to get into with two new tennis rackets and a pack of balls going for $50. Fees at NJTLs are low, but even then the organizations find ways to get any kid involved.
“We don’t want to turn away kids and opportunities because they can’t afford to be in there,” said Adams, who joined HJTEP in 2005. “Those are the very kids that we want so that we can teach them that they are great at something or that they can be great at something if they work hard.”
It succeeds. HJTEP has reached more than 10,000 students, 90% of which have graduated high school. Citywide only 67% of students graduate and only 25% in Central Harlem, per HJTEP. They use age-appropriate guidance and equipment that keeps children engaged and committed, just as Roth, who is white, did to engage inner-city camp students a few summers ago.
“Because [BIPOC] don’t have much representation in tennis, it’s hard for them to see the potential success they could have,” Roth told Yahoo Sports. “Experiencing success early on was pretty important.”
For those students and families who end up showing promise and proving success, the next barrier can be frustrating and detrimental.
Junior tennis costs reach six figures
As the assistant manager of tennis programming at HJTEP, Simone Spigner recently went over the budget for her son to travel to competitions as part of the tournament team.
It came out to $120,000.
“That’s someone’s salary,” Simone Spigner told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a blessing that we have these people that are behind him. There are a lot of talented players out there that will never get the chance just because of finances.”
The number is quadruple the median income for Black and Hispanic families, according to Pew Research. On average families spend $1,170 a year for one child to play tennis, but it was one of three sports that families reported spending in excess of $20,000 in the Aspen Institute’s 2019 study. Adams’ parents paid $35,000 in 1983, which adjusted for inflation is $92,000 and doesn’t include free equipment, lessons and apparel.
Donovan homeschools, trains most days of the week and plays between 40 and 50 tournaments a year. He has a sponsor, Ascot Manor, that helps with equipment — that includes two to three pairs of shoes a month — and funding. Entry fees, which can cost hundreds, are paid by HJTEP with money raised through its sponsors and donors. When these options aren’t there, it forces players to quit.
“Because [NJTL programs] are in underserved communities they’re also in underground, lower socioeconomic communities,” Adams said. “And so parents put their kids in these programs because it’s an afterschool program. They want a safe haven for their kid, they want their kids to learn how to be better citizens, to be disciplined, build their self-confidence, etc.
“And then the kid becomes good. Like really good. They’re ready to play tournaments. And the parents are saying, I didn’t sign up for this. I can’t afford to put him in tournaments. That’s where we lose so many of our quote-unquote athletes and kids of color from our sport. It’s because there does come a time where finances come into play.”
This is the same issue as basketball with costly AAU teams, Adams said. Except there are fewer high school tennis teams in the U.S. than basketball squads for players to show their talents.
If they didn’t have financial help, Simone said they would sacrifice and find ways to keep her children’s dreams going. But she said their circumstance is unique.
“Once [BIPOC] don’t have these options then they kind of drop out and you never know how far they could have gone,” she said.
Simone is a proponent of grassroots programs and said she’d like to see the USTA better funnel funding to players who need it more, or who aren’t in the top of the rankings but are on the cusp.
“I think it has to go to those kids that are on the edge of really succeeding,” she said. “One thing can make them go either way. And that’s where the transitional kids, they really need the funding there.”
Changes coming for USTA
The USTA’s Junior Competition Committee approved changes to the junior circuit in 2019 that standardizes the structure and ranking system across the U.S. It goes into effect next year.
“It’s huge,” Simone Spigner told Yahoo Sports. “It’s crazy because I always thought they should have done this all along to make the level board for everyone.”
The current system is highly dependent on region, meaning those who can afford it will travel — say from California to Florida — to “chase points” and move up the rankings, in turn bringing in more sponsors, attention and tournaments. Those who can’t pay to travel, or who have parents unable to take them, are hit with the double-whammy: Kids flying in take away spots at the local tournament.
“It may take a couple years to really get the data,” Adams said. “But I think it will help to bring the cost down tremendously for a lot of parents who are keeping their kids competitive.”
Naomi Osaka passed Serena Williams this year as the highest-paid female athlete and Black players took a stand at the US Open for racial justice reform. Those role model moments have the power to create another generation of players. And leaders of grassroots programs, such as the 2020 USTA National Community Association of the Year winner People for Palmer Park in Detroit, are literally handing out flyers door-to-door to build programs in inner cities and show tennis to lower-income youths of all races and ethnicities. The USTA’s focus on Latino communities, and meeting them where they are, will have a ripple effect in the coming years.
“I think in five years,” Adams said, “you’ll probably see a big difference in the people who are playing, what they look like and the opportunities that are there.”
From Adams’ youth in Chicago to Donovan Spigner’s in Harlem, millions of BIPOC are playing tennis. They pass it down to their children, or in Donovan’s case, a passerby at the park. The role models for the girls are easy to spot. But boys are marketed in other directions than tennis. And when it comes time for many of these BIPOC players to take their skills to a higher level, the cost and structure of the game gets in the way.
It all combines to prevent the next Serena, Osaka, Robin or Donovan from emerging.
More from Yahoo Sports: