The American Tennis Association (ATA)

Posted by · November 25, 2010 · Filed in Uncategorized

ATA – The Black Tennis Mecca

Formed in 1916 by a group of African American businessmen, college professors and physicians, the American Tennis Association (ATA) has become the Mecca for blacks – from all walks of life – who yearn to enjoy the camaraderie and competition offered by a sport for youngsters from age 8 to 80.
Since its inception, the ATA, which is the oldest African American sports organization in the United States, has honored the founding fathers primary objectives:

• To bring black tennis enthusiasts and players into close and friendly relations,
• To improve the standards of existing clubs,
• To hold an annual national championship tournament,
• To regulate the dates of local and regional tournaments to avoid conflicts,
• To appoint referees and officials for each event, and
• To promote the standard of the game among black players.

The organization held its first ATA National Championships, consisting of three events (men’s and women’s singles and men’s doubles), at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park in August 1917. In August 2005, several thousand players are expected to compete in more than 50 different events at the 89th annual ATA National Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla. Indeed, the ATA is the core of a growing, African American big-bucks demographic that has helped turn the tennis industry into a multibillion dollar business.
The ATA has produced several of the world’s top players and coaches. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, the first African Americans to be ranked No. 1 and to win Grand Slam titles, were sponsored and groomed by ATA officials and coaches. ATA coaches Willis Thomas and John Wilkerson developed several top pros, including (No. 4) Zina Garrison, (No. 9) Lori McNeil, (No. 56) Rodney Harmon and (No. 67) Katrina Adams. MaliVai Washington, Leslie Allen, Camille Benjamin, Chip Hooper, Renee Blount, Marcell Freeman, Bruce Foxworth, Juan Farrow are among other former ATA players who received computer rankings on the men’s and women’s pro circuits.
Though severely hampered by the nation’s acceptance of policies and practices that denied blacks access to most United States Lawn Tennis Association events (USLTA) during that time, several black leaders were determined to cultivate an appreciation for ‘the gentlemen’s game’ among people of color. They overcame by forming their own tennis circuit. The ATA was born when representatives from more than a dozen black tennis clubs met in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 30, 1916, Thanksgiving Day. Dr. Harry S. McCard, Dr. William H. Wright, Dr. B.M. Rhetta, Ralph Cook, Henry Freeman and Tally Holmes were among the ATA’s founding fathers. Holmes, of Washington, D.C., won the first two ATA men’s singles titles.
Knowing that large groups of blacks would not be accommodated at most hotels, especially in the south, the early ATA National Championships were held at various black colleges, including Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Morehouse College, Central State and Lincoln University. These black campuses provided tennis courts and sufficient housing space. The college administrators were delighted to have so many prosperous and potential donors, affiliated with their campuses. The ATA national soon became one of the most anticipated social events of the year in the black community. Formal dances, fashion shows and other activities were planned during the week of play. Today, similar social activities are planned at most ATA events.
Major Barrier Broken
The first interracial match occurred in 1940 when Don Budge, who won the Grand Slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals in same calendar year) in 1938, met ATA champion Jimmie McDaniel in an exhibition at New York’s Cosmopolitan Club before 2,000 fans. Budge defeated McDaniel 6-1, 6-2, and afterwards commended McDaniel on his skills despite his error-filled performance. “Jimmy is a very good player, I’d say he’d rank with the first 10 of our white players,” Budge said.
But the most significant breakthrough occurred in 1950 when Althea Gibson, who won a record 10 consecutive ATA singles titles, stepped across the racial divide to become the first black to compete in the U.S. Nationals. Several years later, Gibson won the first of five Grand Slam titles, capturing the French Open in 1956. She also won Wimbledon (1957-58) and the U.S. Nationals (1957-58). In 1968, Arthur Ashe, a three-time ATA champion (1960-62) captured the inaugural U.S. Open title, becoming the first black male to win a Grand Slam title. Ashe also won the Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975). Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, Dr. Hubert Eaton and Bertram Baker were among the ATA officials who played key behind the scene roles in the success of Gibson and Ashe. Johnson, an ATA vice-president, organized and developed the first ATA Junior Development program. Eaton was a long-time ATA president and Baker was a long time ATA executive secretary. The Gibson-Ashe legacy continues through today’s black pros, including Venus and Serena Williams, Chanda Rubin, James Blake, Angela Haynes, Jamea Jackson and Donald Young. The Williams sisters, who already have 12 Grand Slam singles titles, frequently have said that they were inspired by Gibson, Ashe, Garrison and other former players.

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