Wimbledon, England. For the first time in nearly half a century, Wimbledon weekends felt and looked different.
Nick Kyrgios and Ons Jaber brought new variety to the men’s and women’s singles finals. Gill from Tunisia became the first player from North Africa to reach the final in singles. Kyrgios, an Australian with Malaysian roots and a well-established swagger that sets him apart from his peers, played in his first Grand Slam final. Zhaber and Kyrgios each lost, but it doesn’t matter.
Not since 1975 when Arthur Ash as well as Evonne Goolagong reached the final, both league matches were equally diverse. Tennis is developing in fits and starts, and nowhere does this seem more true than at Wimbledon.
Looking at the crowd on Center Court over the past two weeks, I can see how difficult it is to make change, especially when it comes to racing.
There is a familiar uniformity in the stands. Apart from patches of color here and there, a sea of whiteness. For me, a black guy who has played the game in the minor leagues and is always looking forward to seeing it break away from its old habits, the lack of color always feels like a good hit, especially at Wimbledon in London.
After Saturday’s women’s final, I stood at the column near one of the exits from Center Court. Hundreds passed by. Then several thousand. I counted about a dozen blacks. This grand event takes place in one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world, the center of immigrants from all over the world. You won’t know it by looking at the audience. There were some Asian faces. Several Muslims in hijabs. The Sikh community in London is huge. I have only seen one of the traditional Sikh turbans at court.
When I took a few black fans aside and asked them if they realized how rare they were in a crowd, the response was always as quick as a Jabert right hand or a Kyrgios serve. “How could I not?” said James Smith, a resident of London. “I saw a guy in the section right above me. We smiled at each other. I don’t know the person, but there was a connection. We knew we were few and far between.”
The fans see it.
And the players too.
“I definitely noticed,” Coco Gauff, the American teen star, said during our conversation last week. She said she is so focused when she plays that she barely notices the crowd. But then, when she looks at her photos from Wimbledon, the images are amazing. “Not many blacks in the crowd.”
Gauff compared Wimbledon to the US Open, which is more down to earth, like the world’s largest public park tournament, and with a much more diverse audience.
“It’s definitely weird here because London has to be such a big melting pot,” Gauff added after thinking for a while, wondering why.
Going to Wimbledon, like participating in major sporting events in North America and far beyond, requires a lot of effort. The tried and true Wimbledon takes this commitment to the extreme. You cannot go online to buy tickets. There is a lottery system for many places. Some fans line up at a nearby park, camping out overnight to attend. The cost is not exactly cheap.
“They say it’s open to everyone, but the ticketing system is designed with so many hurdles that it looks like it’s designed to exclude people from certain beliefs,” said Densel Frith, a black building contractor based in London.
He told me that he paid about £100 for the ticket, about $120. That’s a lot of money for a guy who called himself a strictly blue collar. “I won’t be back tomorrow,” he added. “Who can afford it? People in our community can’t afford it. Never. Never. Never. “
It’s more than access and cost. Something deeper. The prestige and tradition of Wimbledon is its greatest asset and Achilles’ heel. The place seems wonderful – tennis in an English garden is not an exaggeration, but also stuffy and boring and stuck in itself.
“Think about what Wimbledon represents to so many of us,” said Lorraine Sebata, 38, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in London.
“For us, it represents a system,” she added. “Colonial system. A hierarchy that still underlies English society. You look at the royal box, as white as the white dress code of the Victorian era at this tournament, and you can’t help but notice it.
Sebata has described herself as an avid fan. She loves tennis since Pete Sampras, although she doesn’t play. Her friend Diana Kazazi, a social worker who came to England from Uganda and the Netherlands, is equally passionate about the game. As we talked, they looked around—up and down the corridor just beyond the stately, ivy-covered Central Court—and could not find anyone who seemed to share their African heritage. They said they had a lot of black friends who loved tennis but didn’t feel like they could be part of Wimbledon, located in a posh suburb that feels exclusive and so far removed from the everyday.
“Behind this tournament is an organization and history that maintains the status quo,” Kazazi said. “You have to go beyond the standard as a fan to get around that.” She continued, “It’s a story that we like as fans, but this story says something to people who are uncomfortable coming.” For many people of color in England, tennis is simply not seen as “something for us”.
I understand. I know exactly where these fans came from. I felt their confusion, bitterness and doubt that something would change. Honestly, it hurts.
Maybe it will help to know what Wimbledon means to me.
I get goosebumps as I drive through the gate off the two-lane green Church Road. On July 5, 1975, when Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors to become the first black man to win a Wimbledon singles title and the only black man to win a Grand Slam title, except for Yannick Noah at the French Open in 1983, I was 9 years old. a year old boy whose sports love was the Seattle SuperSonics.
Seeing Ash with his graceful game and sharp mind, his afro and skin similar to mine, convinced me to make tennis my sport.
Wimbledon didn’t change the trajectory of my life, but it changed direction.
I became a national junior and varsity player. I spent a little over a year in the minor leagues of professional football, reaching #1.448 in the ATP rankings. Non-white players were almost as rare in my day as they were in Arthur’s day.
Today, as we have just witnessed this weekend, there is a promising new crop of talent. Serena and Venus Williams team up as a guiding light. And yet there is a lot of work to be done. Not only on the court, but also in getting fans to play and taking them to the stands at a tennis monument like Wimbledon. A lot of work that will take a long time.