Race and Color in Tennis: Whither Diversity?

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Race and Color in Tennis: Whither Diversity?
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Here is a startling statistic: Of the top 100 on the ATP rankings (as of 5/18), only four are non-white: the French duo of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga (#9) and Gael Monfils(#11), American James Blake (#16), and Taipei's Yen-Hsun Lu (#66). Four. Out of a hundred. Four percent.

In the words of Yogi Berra, "I know color when I see it, and this ain't it!"

Okay, he never actually said that, but you get the idea.

For some years now, tennis has had an interesting dichotomy. It is played in more countries than ever before, and has been growing in popularity in places it hasn't been in the past. 

On the other side of the coin, it has been on the decline in its most lucrative market - the US. Considering that the US is one of the most race-diverse countries in the world, is it a stretch to claim that tennis' lack of race-diversity is to blame for this downward trend?

I would argue that any time a sport is dominated by one race, its popularity among other races suffers. Let's take a closer look at the recent history of sports other than tennis for comparison.

Basketball in the US went through a phase in the 80's and 90's where a majority of the players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) were black. This coincided with the era of Michael Jordan, skewing the viewership statistics upward, but the NBA suffered from the disenfranchisement of people who grew up idolizing Larry Bird and Jerry West.

By the time Jordan retired for the second time in 1998 (he would have another stint with the Washington Wizards from 2001-03, before he retired for good), the NBA had become a marginal league and was (and still is) overshadowed by the more diverse NCAA (college) basketball.

However, David Stern, the visionary chief of the NBA has realized that desperate measures are needed to revive the game. Stern has been instrumental in expanding the NBA to markets such as China, South America and Europe, with superstars like Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli taking center-stage. The results are there for all to see: the NBA has experienced a happy rebound in its popularity.

Baseball has a similar story. America's favorite past-time has experienced a rebirth owing to a surge of international players from Japan and the Dominican Republic. Superstars like Matsui, Daisuke and Tony Abreu, have a huge following in their home countries (although Abreu is American-born, he is of Dominican Republic heritage).

The National Hockey League (NHL) is almost entirely made up of white players. Its popularity is stagnant, or even declining. (Disclaimer: I don't follow the NHL actively).

The National Football League (NFL) is the most popular sports league in the US by far. It is no coincidence that it has incredible race diversity: black, white, at least one Mexican of Chinese origin (Juan Wong), an American of Japanese origin (Noriaki Kinoshita) and an American of Samoan origin (Junior Seau). Though NFL Europa closed in 2007 after 16 years, the NFL is headed in the right direction.

Major international sports such as cricket (powered by India, and actively played by people from all continents) and soccer (driven by South America) have no such problems, and it is no surprise that their popularity is at an all-time high and growing.

Which brings us back to tennis.

As an individual sport that needs expensive courts and gear, tennis is often considered a rich-man's sport. And this is cited as the reason for its lack of growth in places like Asia and Africa. To this argument, I cry, "Fault!" and I offer golf as a counterpoint. Also often considered a sport for the privileged, golf has a strong presence in middle-income Asian countries such as India and Thailand.

So what hinders tennis' ability to grow in non-European countries and countries with a significant non-white population (such as the US)?

In one word, exposure.

With tournaments in Shanghai, Chennai and Dubai (apparently city names in Asia need to end with an 'I' to qualify to host tennis tournaments. I am guessing Mumbai is next), audiences in Asia have started watching top players in action, but more needs to happen. And don't even get me started on Africa.

Tennis clinics, challengers, exhibitions, and yes, a Grand Slam tournament.

Sport has the unique ability to bind cultures and bring people closer. Nowhere is this more evident than in tennis. Tennis fans don't see Nadal as a Spaniard, or Federer as a Swiss, but as players with mental/physical force, and grace/elegance respectively. Top non-white players such as Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah, and Vijay Amritraj, who have had a similar cross-over appeal are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

We cannot afford to miss an opportunity during this golden period in tennis to build the sport's presence in parts of the world that could benefit from its presence and vice-versa.

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