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It's not a wonderful world of color in tennis

August 31, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- Don't let the U.S. Open fool you.

Don't be snookered by the Williams sisters and James Blake. Don't think that soon you're going to see a serious onslaught of racial diversity in pro tennis.

One of my recent columns focused on how professional tennis, now more than ever, is a game possessing a stunning array of players from all over the world. The tennis world is flat, I argued. Nowhere is this truer than here at what is arguably America's most international major sporting event.

Here's a little mea culpa. I must back up, by a small step, from the premise of that column. Among a large cast, tennis is a game stuffed with Frenchmen, Spaniards, Russians, Brazilians and yes, although in dwindling numbers, Americans. But you are simply not going to find many players who, in their respective countries, are racial minorities. And while the number is broadening somewhat, you are also not going to find many players with brown skin.

Let me put it to you like this: If the Open were a political convention, it would be the one held this week in Minneapolis with the old dude and the beauty queen. You know how conventions like that put every last black delegate in the front row -- all 12 of them -- masking reality? What great theater.

Same thing here. The push this year by a few top players masks the deeper reality. Saturday, Venus and Serena Williams played their televised matches on the show court. While they played, I walked the grounds, scanning the 18 outside courts where practices and matches were being held. On those courts the only non-white player was a teenage mixed-doubles player named Sloane Stephens.

Sure, at the Open there's the Williams sisters and Blake. There's also Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the elastic Gael Monfils, future stars who continue to charge through the draw. That's five top players with African heritage. But there are a combined total of 251 others in the singles draws.

Given the deeply mixed backgrounds of some of the players here, this is tough to quantify, but walking the grounds and scanning the draw you come to a simple conclusion: only a thin slice of those 251 players are non-white.

It's not just a lack of African Americans.

Where are the Mexican Americans?

Where are the Asians? Maybe Kei Nishikori, the young Japanese player who pushed forward with an upset Saturday, will blaze a trail.

Where are the Afro-Brazilians, the guys we see on the soccer pitch, the dark-skinned South and Central Americans of native descent?

Let us turn toward Europe. Must all British players look vaguely like descendants of the Crown?

Give credit to France. From one of its African colonies it produced the 1983 French Open champion, Yannick Noah. It has also nurtured Tsonga and Monfils.

Still, Europe grows fast with Africans, South Asians and potential serve-and-volleyers from the Middle East. Will we ever see a kid from Amsterdam named Ali make it to the tennis top 10?

Honestly, on this perplexing matter, as with most matters of race, I have more questions than answers.

Why is pro tennis the way it is? The list of reasons is as big as Rafael Nadal's thighs.

Tennis costs a mint; there aren't many scholarships to country clubs. Tennis lags behind football, baseball and basketball on U.S. soil, and sits in the draft of soccer everywhere else. Tennis is still in some ways stuffy, a game for the upper crust.

Two more questions. Does the lack of color matter? In the U.S., basketball is dominated by black Americans. Nobody much cares.

Should it matter? Maybe it's not that bad that minority kids all over the world aren't glomming onto yet another sport. Fine, so long as they hit the books instead.

Don't get me wrong. Tennis is still a wonderful sport. The U.S. Open is still a phenomenal tournament. Progress is being made, slowly. But this is still a sport played at the top level almost entirely by folks with white skin. OK. It is what it is. Just don't get fooled by the Williams sisters, the TV shots and the great theater out here in Queens.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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