Wimbledon needs more Arthur Ashe moments, on and off the pitch

WIMBLEDON, England — For the first time in nearly half a century, a weekend at Wimbledon felt and looked different. Nick Kyrgios and On...


WIMBLEDON, England — For the first time in nearly half a century, a weekend at Wimbledon felt and looked different.

Nick Kyrgios and Ons Jabeur brought new diversity to the men’s and women’s singles finals. Jabeur of Tunisia became the first North African player to qualify for a singles final. Kyrgios, a Malaysian-born Australian and a well-documented swagger that marks him as something completely different from his peers, was playing in his first Grand Slam final. Jabeur and Kyrgios each ended up losing, but that’s not the point.

Not since 1975, when Arthur Ashe and Evonne Goolagong reached their final, combined the two league matches to be so diverse. Tennis moves in spurts, and nowhere does that seem more true than at Wimbledon.

Watching the center court crowd for the past two weeks was seeing how difficult change is to achieve, especially when it comes to running.

In the stands, an all too familiar homogeneity. Aside from a splash of color here and there, a sea of ​​whiteness. For me, a black man who played the game in the minor leagues and still hopes to see him outgrow his old ways – seeing a lack of color still feels like a punch, especially at Wimbledon in London.

After Saturday’s women’s final, I stood next to a pillar near one of the center court exits. Hundreds passed. Then a few thousand. I counted about a dozen black faces. This great event takes place in one of the most diverse metropolises in the world, a hub for immigrants from all over the world. You wouldn’t know that by looking at the spectators. There were Asian faces. A few Muslims in hijab. The Sikh community is huge in London. I only saw one of the traditional Sikh turbans at court.

When I took a few black fans aside and asked if they felt aware of their rarity in the crowd, the response was always as quick as a forehand volley from Jabeur or a serve from Kyrgios. “How could I not?” said London resident James Smith. “I saw a guy in a section just above me. We smiled at each other. I don’t know the man, but there was a connection. We knew we were few and far between.

The fans see it.

And the players too.

“I really notice it,” Coco Gauff, the American teen star, said during our chat last week. She said she was so focused when she performed that she barely noticed the crowd. But afterwards, when she looks at photos of herself at Wimbledon, the images are surprising. “Not many black faces in the crowd.”

Gauff compared Wimbledon to the US Open, which has a more down-to-earth feel, like the biggest public park tournament in the world, and a much more varied crowd.

“It’s really weird here because London is supposed to be such a big melting pot,” Gauff added, thinking for a moment, wondering why.

Going to Wimbledon, like attending major sporting events in North America and far beyond, requires a massive commitment. Tried and traditional Wimbledon pushes this commitment to its limits. You cannot go online to purchase tickets. There is a lottery system for many seats. Some fans line up at a nearby park, camping overnight to attend. The cost is not really cheap.

“They say it’s open to anyone, but the ticket system is designed with so many hurdles that it’s almost as if it’s meant to exclude people of a certain persuasion,” said Densel Frith, a black building contractor who lives in London.

He told me he paid about 100 pounds for his ticket, about $120. That’s a lot of money for a guy who describes himself as strictly blue collar. “I won’t come back tomorrow,” he added. “Who can afford that? People in our community can’t afford it. Certainly not. Certainly not. Certainly not.”

There is more than access and cost. Something deeper. The prestige and tradition of Wimbledon are its greatest assets, and an Achilles’ heel. The place is wonderful – tennis in an English garden is not hyperbole – but also stuffy and heavy and stuck on itself.

“Think of what Wimbledon means to so many of us,” said Lorraine Sebata, 38, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in London.

“For us, it represents the system,” she added. “The Colonial System. The hierarchy” which is still the basis of English society. You look at the royal box, as white as the all-white dress code of the Victorian era at this tournament, and you can’t miss it.

Sebata has described herself as an avid fan. She has loved tennis since the days of Pete Sampras, although she does not play. Her friend Dianah Kazazi, a social worker from Uganda and the Netherlands in England, has an equal passion for the game. As we spoke, they looked around – in a hallway just outside the stately ivy-lined center court – and found no one who seemed to have the African heritage they shared. They said they had many black friends who loved tennis but didn’t think they could make it to Wimbledon, located in a luxurious suburb that feels exclusive and so far removed from the everyday.

“There is an establishment and a story behind this tournament that maintains the status quo,” Kazazi said. “You have to think outside the box as a fan to get around that.” She continued, “It’s the story that draws us in as fans, but that story says something to people who don’t feel comfortable coming.” For many people of color in England, tennis is simply not seen as ‘something for us’.

I understood. I know exactly where those fans came from. I felt their dismay, their bitterness and their doubt as to whether things were going to change. Honesty hurts.

Maybe it helps to know what Wimbledon means to me.

I get goosebumps every time I enter the gates, on the leafy dual carriageway of Church Road. On July 5, 1975, when Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors, becoming the first black man to win the Wimbledon singles title and the only black man to win a Grand Slam tournament title except for Yannick Noah at Roland- Garros in 1983, I was a 9-year-old whose love of the sport was the Seattle SuperSonics.

Seeing Ashe with her graceful play and sharp intelligence, her afro and her skin that looked like mine, persuaded me to make tennis my sport.

Wimbledon didn’t change the trajectory of my life, but it did change the direction.

I became a nationally ranked junior and college player. I spent just over a year in the minor leagues of professional play, reaching No. 448 in the ATP rankings. Non-white players were almost as rare in my time as in Arthur’s.

Today, as we just witnessed this weekend, there is a new generation of budding talent. Serena and Venus Williams combine as the North Star. And yet, there is a lot of work to be done. Not only on the court, but also by attracting fans to the game and getting them into the stands of a tennis landmark like Wimbledon. All a job that will take a lot of time.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Wimbledon needs more Arthur Ashe moments, on and off the pitch
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