Esther Hendershott, Director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for Southern California, is looking to grow the game of tennis and create more opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color in the Inland Empire.
Esther Hendershott, Director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for Southern California, is looking to grow the game of tennis and create more opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color in the Inland Empire. Credit: Chris Allen, BVN

Prince James Story

The University of North Carolina Tar Heels took home their first Division 1 victory during the 2023 Women’s Tennis Championship last month — a first in the program’s history.

Looking at the schools that competed in the NCAA tournament and many others around the state of California, one thing that stands out is the need for more African American women in Division 1 Tennis programs. 

According to the NCAA demographics database, in 2022, African Americans made up 2% of Division 1  women’s tennis players, not including Historical Black Colleges and Universities. 

There were ten African American head coaches for Division 1 tennis programs; of that number, seven were men, and three were women coaches. 

Even though tennis is still a White dominant sport, you can still recognize some of the early successes of young Black women playing professional tennis right now, like Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauf, and Sloane Stephens, and you may ask yourself why the numbers are so low at the collegiate level. 

What barriers may keep African American women from competing in this sport and furthering their education at a high level? 

The National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network was started by Arthur Ashe, Charlie Passerelle, and Sheridan Snyder in 1969. The purpose of the NJTL was to instill not only the benefits of tennis and encourage Brown and Black youth to play tennis, but to encourage them to think about education. 

“Not every child that plays tennis is going to be a Venus Williams or an Arthur Ashe,” said Esther Hendershott, Director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for Southern California. 

“Realizing that education can open many doors, they felt [it was] very important to make sure that our youth, especially in our underserved communities, think about education, along with playing sports, whether it’s basketball, baseball or tennis.” 

Hendershott praised pioneers in tennis like Katrina Adams and Arthur Ashe, who were victims of verbal abuse and racist attacks. 

“You see more faces of color playing tennis, and I attribute that to the pioneers of the past that stuck with the sport, despite all the discrimination and racism that existed at the time,” Hendershott said.

Esther Hendershott, Director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for Southern California,  praised pioneers in tennis like Katrina Adams and Arthur Ashe, who were victims of verbal abuse and racist attacks. (source: ustasocal.com)

Without the bravery of such tennis trailblazers, the world may not have witnessed the emergence of two sisters from Compton, California who also changed the game of tennis. 

Serena Williams is arguably the greatest tennis player of all time. She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist, has won 73 WTA singles titles, and is currently second on the list of Grand Slam singles titles with 23 wins, behind Margaret Court (24).

Venus Williams is also one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time. She was the first African American woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world. Also, a four-time Olympic gold medalist. She has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and 2 Grand Slams mixed titles. 

The Williams sisters are undefeated in Grand Slam doubles finals (14-0). The sisters also won three gold medals in the Olympics doubles event. 

Hendershott said the emergence of Venus and Serena Williams turned the tide on the sport and helped grow the sport in communities of color.

“They were young, happy girls. They had their beads. They didn’t care what anybody thought. They were genuinely authentic in their love for the sport,” Hendershott said. 

“I think Venus and Serena were able to handle that and manage that because of the parents’ support that they had. They were smart girls because they tuned out all the noise around them, and they focused on what they wanted to do, and that was to play tennis.”

The adversity they faced playing tennis as young Black children helped them thrive under pressure and win at the highest levels of competition. 

“It didn’t matter — all the stares when they were going into these White clubs and tennis tournaments, and people looking at them.  They walked tall and proud,” Hendershott said. “That really impacted so many Brown and Black youth.”

Similar to the Williams sisters, Denise Campbell is familiar with how it feels to be Black and judged for her love of tennis. Campbell is 18 years old and a 2023 graduate of J. W. North High School in Riverside, CA. 

“I always felt like the other people were expecting me to be a certain way or like they were judging me because a lot of White people do judge [you] before they’ve ever even talked to you,” Campbell said. 

Denise Campbell, made the Inland Empire All-Area team after going undefeated during the regular season. (Courtesy: Synthia Campbell)

“Especially because it was such a White-dominant type of sport. I always felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t really feel like joining,” Campbell said. 

Campbell has been playing tennis since she was five years old despite feeling judged and outcasted by others. Campbell excelled in tennis. 

Campbell finished her senior year as the Ivy League singles champion and Ivy League MVP.  She also made it to the second round of the CIF regional tournament. 

Another barrier that can keep those interested in tennis from competing is the cost of playing the sport.  For example, Campbell’s tennis rackets cost around $350 each, not including the costs of paying someone to string the tennis racket. Additionally, quality tennis shoes can cost about $140 a pair.

Campbell finished her senior year as the Ivy League singles champion and Ivy League MVP.  (Courtesy: Synthia Campbell)

Tennis is a year-round sport, and to climb the rankings, players need to compete in as many tournaments as possible, stated Campbell’s mother, Synthia Campbell. 

Tournament fees, traveling expenses, and personal training sessions are costly. Coaches can charge anywhere from $50 to $200 for a session, and tournament fees may cost $50 or $100, depending on whether she was competing in a singles or doubles tournament. 

Hendershott said her goal is to collaborate with more tennis programs in the Inland Empire to address the lack of diversity across the sport and create more opportunities for Black and Brown youth.  

In the past, USTA has provided tennis equipment to schools, parks, and recreational centers and helped them train PE teachers, coaches, and parks and recreational staff to become tennis coaches or learn tennis to better enable them to work with kids. 

They also provide support to families or participants who can’t afford the cost of playing tennis.

“We’re looking for more representation out there, as far as tennis directors, tennis coaches, tennis teachers and volunteers go. We need that representation from our Brown and Black communities,” Hendershott said.  

“Imagine going into a tournament, you’re a kid, and everyone around you is White, and you’re the only Brown or Black child. You sense it, and you see the stares. You hear the people. It can affect a child and so, it’s important for kids to see someone that reflects and represents them.” 

Report for America Corps member and Black Voice News Climate and Environmental Justice reporter, Prince James Story was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an intersectional journalist with experience covering news and sports across numerous mediums. Story aims to inform the public of social inequities and discriminatory practices while amplifying the voices of those in the communities harmed. Story earned his master’s degree in Sports Journalism from Arizona State University-Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He earned a B.A. in Mass Communication and a B.A. in African American studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Contact Prince James with tips, comments, or concerns at Princejames@blackvoicenews.com or via Twitter @PrinceJStory.