NEW YORK - Cecil Hollins, the only African American among 30 or so gold badge tennis umpires in the world, was whacking tennis balls with another black umpire in the early morning hours before the start of play at the 1998 U.S. Open.
White umpires played on either side. But a white groundskeeper walked straight toward the black umpires.
Using a racial epithet, the groundskeeper ordered the black men to "get off the court," according to the sworn testimony of both umpires.
Hollins had refereed matches with Pete Sampras and Boris Becker and John McEnroe -- and even the brattiest stars had praised him. He often questioned why the U.S. Tennis Association would not assign him to umpire a men's singles final, an honor never accorded to a black man. But he knew how to keep his cool.
So Hollins walked off the practice court and reported the incident to the USTA.
But in the years since, the USTA stripped Hollins, 50, of his gold, silver, bronze and white umpire's badges. Three years ago, the association terminated him as an umpire. Hollins and a black female umpire have responded by suing the USTA, alleging racial, sex and age discrimination.
Now five members of Congress and several prominent civil rights and women's organizations have rallied to the side of the black umpires. They point to what they call a disturbing pattern.
No black man or woman in the history of the U.S. Open has umpired a men's semifinal or final singles match. Nor has a female umpire worked on any of the top 16 male matches at the U.S. Open, a point recently acknowledged in court papers filed by the USTA.
Of the 2,000 umpires certified by professional tennis's ruling bodies, less than 1 percent are black.
"I was the first gold-badge black umpire ever, and if I didn't have a conscience and could ignore that so many blacks and women are being discriminated against, I'd still be umpiring important matches," said Hollins, who serves as an administrative law judge with the state housing agency in New York.
Chris Widmaier, director of public relations for the U.S. Tennis Association, declined to comment on the case. Nor would he provide the number of black and female judges who work for the USTA nor the rounds and matches that those umpires had worked. The U.S. Open is the most prestigious tennis tournament in the United States, and it begins in late August.
"Obviously, we're not going to comment because of the litigation," Widmaier said.
New York City has given the USTA an exclusive 99-year-lease to run the public U.S. Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow. The association takes the lion's share of the profits from stadium, court and parking fees, as well as from food and merchandising revenue.
Last month, the USTA's attorney, Darrell S. Gay of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, wrote a four-page letter to Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) in which he declined to provide any information on the association's hiring of blacks and women or on how it assigns umpires to matches. But he accused Hollins's attorney, Gary Ireland, of "contacting every possible press contact he can identify."
Gay contended that Ireland and Hollins are motivated by "an apparent desire to receive significant economic benefit as opposed to . . . improvement for equal opportunities in sport."
Maloney said Gay's letter missed the point. The USTA runs a public court, she noted, and so has a special obligation to run an equal-opportunity workplace.
"The USTA is the face of tennis in America and it's important that they respond . . . quickly and fully," Maloney wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "The public needs to be assured that an umpire's gender or ethnicity won't prevent them from working at the highest levels of their sport."
Professional tennis has long struggled with the race question. For centuries, the greatest players of tennis -- the favorite sport of the French and British aristocracy -- came out of private, all-white clubs. Professional tennis did not integrate until 1950, when such pioneers as Althea Gibson (who won the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958) and, later, Arthur Ashe played in the tour.
The USTA in the past decade has embarked on a program to promote tennis, and it says that last year 1.1 million people played the sport for the first time, "of which 2 out of 5 people were of multicultural background."
But the success of such modern black stars as Venus and Serena Williams obscures the fact that the professional tour still has just a handful of black players.
"The tennis establishment likes to pat itself on the back for its minority tennis programs, but it's not translating into the professional ranks," said Sundiata Djata, a professor of history at Northern Illinois University and author of "Blacks at the Net: Black Achievement in the History of Tennis." "There are fewer blacks at the high end than in the 1970s."
Hollins is an unlikely rebel. A freckle-faced, lean and personable man, with a head of neat braids, he played a strong game of tennis in college. He became a lawyer and, while on vacation, took a shot at line umpiring. He loved it. For four years, he traveled across the nation and Europe, seeking out matches and schools for umpires.
By 1994, Hollins had acquired a gold badge. That was only three years after he reached the prestigious position of chair umpire, making his one of the fastest progressions in tennis history. He soon had Grand Slam credentials -- Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open, as well as the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. "I was out there umpiring matches with McEnroe, Becker and [Andre] Agassi," he recalls. "It was excitement beyond belief."
He envisioned sitting on the umpire's chair in Arthur Ashe Stadium overseeing the finals of the men's singles. Tennis-savvy black friends tamped down his expectations. "They told me, 'Cecil, don't get too excited. They don't let blacks work top matches.'
"I said, 'Naaaah, I'm a likable guy.' "
An umpire's life is a precarious one. If a star player takes a dislike to an umpire, that umpire might not get assigned to prominent matches. In the 2001 U.S. Open, the Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt complained that a black line judge favored James Blake, a player of mixed heritage. ("Look at him and look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is," Hewitt demanded of the umpire).
The USTA did not discipline Hewitt, and the line umpires in his next match were white, a result that officials attributed to random computerized assignments.
Hollins rarely encountered a problem with a player. But he began to speak out internally, asking why the USTA had not placed more blacks and women in the umpire chair for prominent matches. Then came the incident at U.S. Open in 1998, in which he says the white groundskeeper hurled a racial insult at him and Alvin Penelton, a black umpire from East St. Louis.
Hollins reported the incident to the USTA and, later, he spoke with the director of officials, Richard Kaufman. Hollins gave this version of that conversation: "Kaufman told us, 'You're lucky you're not thrown out of the tournament. Get out of my office!' "
USTA officials would not comment on this or any other incident.
Penelton, who has retired from Anheuser-Busch Inc. in St. Louis and still works major tournaments as a line umpire, backed up Hollins's account.
"It's hard to believe, but that's the way it happened," he said in an interview. "Cecil was moving too fast for them. He had gone to the top of the game in no time, and he had the sort of personality that attracted people."
Penelton paused, and added: "Race? I've got to say that's the bottom line, unfortunately."
Hollins was demoted and denied assignments in the next few years. In 2005, he stood by the Arthur Ashe statue outside the tennis center in Queens and wrapped his waist in chains and raised his fist, while supporters handed out leaflets explaining the situation.
"I could have done what black people do all the time in everyday life: Take it without saying a word," Hollins said. "But if Colin Powell can be secretary of state, and Hillary Clinton can run for president, doesn't it make sense they should be able to umpire a men's singles final at the U.S. Open?"