“I feel like I know her personally,” my teammate, Nicole Hutchinson explained as we relished over Serena Williams and her glut of natural tennis IQ. Senior Jessica Josiah added to the joke, “Every time I carry my racquets around campus, there is someone who jokes about how I am about to be the next Serena.” The laughs echoed around Coach Strickland’s office as his student-athletes covered the space doing everything from stringing a popped racket to talking about what we could work on to become a stronger player. As a Division I tennis-athlete playing at an HBCU, this was an ordinary day. However, the never-ending joke that many of us were going to become the next Williams sister was frequently exchanged with several students asking, “Wait, Howard has a tennis team?!”
My seven teammates and I never took offense to this question. As a Historically Black College (or University), otherwise known as an HBCU, Howard University became a beacon of black intellect gaining the name of “the Mecca” during its fight for equality and civil rights. According to the Howard website, “The University has long held a commitment to the study of disadvantaged persons in American society and throughout the world.” Unfortunately, because the mission of the university is so tightly knit into the culture of its students, the stereotype of tennis being a sport for the wealthy and white remained unchanged.
The paradox of Serena Williams, an African-American woman who just won her 23rd grand slam title, the most of any tennis player in the open era, is an exciting one. Every time she blows a kiss to the crowd on national television, acts as validity to the shattered stereotypes of what tennis used to be. As an employee of the United States Tennis Association, I have seen first hand how these presumptions of what tennis is and who it is supposed to be for are being broken down day-by-day. It is true that more minorities are picking up a racquet and playing, however, looking back at how far we have come is a great segue into celebrating Black History Month.
African-Americans were always playing tennis. HBCUs like Howard and Tuskegee University, offered tennis since the 1890s, according to the American Tennis Association (ATA). In fact, the ATA was a driving factor in empowering tennis in the Black community. The ATA continues, “When the USLTA issued a policy statement formally barring African-American tennis players from its competitions, the Association Tennis Club of Washington, DC, and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Maryland, conceived the idea of the American Tennis Association (ATA).” Bearing greats like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson as well as more recent players like Zina Garrison and Leslie Allen, the ATA has been a sturdy lifeline for African-Americans in tennis, breaking down color lines for the Serenas and Sloane Stephens of today.
As a Black, former women’s tennis athlete at an HBCU, of course I strive to be the next Serena. I am quite sure no matter what the ethnicity, all young tennis players strive to be the next Serena because she is the greatest of all time. Great is great, no one can deny that.
I would like to use the celebration of Black History Month as a platform to appreciate how far the game of tennis has come but to still reflect on where it has been and where it could go.
Umarah Mughnee is a community programs manager at USTA Mid-Atlantic and played tennis at Howard University before graduating in 2016.