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Father crusades for more opportunities

Father crusades for more opportunities
March 21 2003
The Miami Herald

Think of William Washington as the affirmative-action advocate of tennis.

A lot of people don't like the concept of affirmative action, especially in sports, which is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy.

A lot of people don't like Washington. He's abrasive. He contends that minority players are excluded from precious wild-card spots at events such as the NASDAQ-100 Open because the tournament directors and management agencies that own the sport are money-grubbing racists.

''The only thing that has changed from Althea Gibson's day until now is that black folks are not picking cotton anymore,'' says Washington, who picketed in front of the Tennis Center at Crandon Park on Wednesday.

He's an agitator. But if any sport could use one, it's tennis.

Washington's daughter, Mashona Washington, lost on Thursday, reducing the number of black players at NASDAQ to five women and one man.

Only two black men have ever won Grand Slam titles: Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968, Wimbledon in 1975 and the Australian Open in 1970 and Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983. Washington's son MaliVai has been the only black Wimbledon finalist since Ashe. After Althea Gibson won the both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958, no black woman won a Grand Slam until Serena Williams won the U.S. Open in 1999. In fact, no black woman even made it to a Grand Slam final after Gibson's retirement until Zina Garrison lost to Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1990.

It's not just the Slams that are monochromatic. Look through the WTA and ATP guides and you can count the black faces on two hands.

Serena and Venus Williams, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, have been a revelation, demonstrating exactly what the sport has been missing for too long. Like Tiger Woods, the sisters' appeal is universal.

Washington and his friend Richard Williams can't understand why tennis doesn't bend over backward to give more wild-card opportunities to black players.

''They need to stop looking so much at the rankings and ask what black players can bring to tennis,'' said Williams, who was also considered a boat rocker until his daughters became among the world's richest and most popular athletes.

''If the tournament director is smart -- and, personally, I'm a genius -- he understands that if he diversifies his tournament he will attract more fans,'' said Williams, who watched Mashona Washington's match on Court 2, where there were more black spectators than there were in all the Stadium Court seats for Michael Chang's victory.

Tennis, which is long past the boom era of the 1970s and 1980s, is making an effort to nurture minority talent. The USTA's fledgling First Serve program, which began at Miami's Moore Park, provides training at 14 inner city sites in Florida. A USTA survey found one in every three new players last year was black or Hispanic.

''If Serena and Venus are the reason for that, we need to strike while the iron is hot,'' said the USTA's Tom Fetzer. ``We want parents to know there are 15,000 tennis scholarships available but that half are taken by foreign players. We want to grow the sport at the grass-roots level.''

The Williams sisters got their start playing on a public court in Compton, Calif. Tennis needs to tap that gold mine of talent.

''There are kids better than Venus and Serena in the ghetto right now,'' Richard Williams said. ``Tennis is hurt by prejudice. You cannot grow if you keep the same audience.''

Tennis is not the country-club sport it used to be. Gone are the days that 89-year-old Gardnar Mulloy recalls, when Ashe was not allowed to stay in the same cottages as white players at a Jacksonville tournament and when Mulloy's entrance into a gala with Gibson caused nasty racist whispers. Today, 75 percent of tennis players play on public courts, according to the USTA.

But 10 years after Ashe's death the number of black pros remains inexplicably low.

The NASDAQ gave wild cards to two black women and no black men. The 2002 U.S. Open gave none of its 17 male wild cards to blacks.

Washington doesn't want to hear about the tough choices tournaments have to make. He won't take the diplomatic path Venus chose when she was asked Thursday about the wild-card issue and replied, ``I would like to believe if you're good people will want you there.''

He will continue his crusade. In his view, ``it's not a lack of talent that is keeping blacks down; it's a lack of opportunity.''
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