In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Cecil Harris, author of Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution, a nonfiction work that chronicles the history of Black Americans in tennis and takes a look at the progress that has been made as well as the work that remains—both on and off the court.
When asked the question, “Who is the most underrated figure in tennis history?” author and tennis aficionado Cecil Harris didn’t skip a beat: “Althea Gibson.” Gibson was an early fixture in the American tennis scene, making her debut in the U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills in 1950 and going on to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Nationals, and the French Nationals, among many other tournaments. She was featured on the cover of Time, pictured with heads of state, and made appearances on popular national television programs—a bonafide sports celebrity during her reign and the first Black woman to dominate in professional tennis.
Unfortunately, however, Harris says she is now largely lost to history. “If you ask most people, ‘Name the first Black tennis champion,’ they would probably answer Arthur Ashe, because that’s who they saw first,” he explains. “But Althea Gibson came before Arthur Ashe.”
Harris also argues that while some may look to the history of prominent Black players, including the Williams sisters, in the sport as proof that tennis is a bastion of racial progress, the reality is quite the opposite. “It’s not as if the revolution is over and the Blacks have won. Look at what’s not happening with umpires, what’s not happening with coaches, tournament referees, tournament directors, broadcasters, sports writers, tennis officials and all those areas. Blacks are severely underrepresented,” he says. Harris also discusses the multiple racial discrimination lawsuits brought against the U.S. Tennis Association, including one filed by Tony Nimmons, a top-ranked umpire and former USTA employee hired to promote diversity and inclusion within the organization, who reported an incident to the USTA where a noose was placed on a Black female employee’s desk. The USTA’s response was that it “was not related to race but was a poor [sic] conceived joke relating to difficult vendors.”
“It’s a 5.5. billion dollar-a-year industry,” Harris points out. “It’s not just about players. There are a lot of positions where people can make a living in tennis, and there’s not nearly enough diversity or inclusion in those areas. That’s something that really needs to change.”