League of Their Own
African-American Women Rank High in College Tennis
By John Martin
Special to ABCNEWS.com
N E W Y O R K, Feb. 11
For the first time in intercollegiate history, five black women rank in the top 20 of American college tennis. All five are roughly the same age — and thus from the same generation — as Venus and Serena Williams. Venus is 23, Serena 22.
The rise in African-American women's college players has been sudden. Ten years ago, the NCAA ranked not a single African-American woman in the top 100. Five years ago, it was the same: zero.
Now, they are among the cream of the sport.
Raquel Kops-Jones of Fresno, Calif., ranks No. 2 in the country. She plays for the University of California at Berkeley. Alexis Gordon of Windsor, Conn., plays for the University of Florida and ranks sixth in the United States.
Megan Bradley of Columbia, Mo., who plays for the University of Miami, ranks 11th. Shadisha Robinson of South Ozone Park, N.Y., from the University of Georgia, ranks 12th. And Jennifer Magley of Bradenton, Fla., ranks 16th. Like Gordon, Magley attends the University of Florida, the nation's top-ranked college team.
It's been nearly 50 years since Althea Gibson burst from the streets of Harlem to win the French (1956) and U.S. titles (1957-58), Wimbledon (1957-58), and reach the finals of the Australian championships (1957).
Now, in step with the success of the Williams sisters, a small but determined class of talented young black women is competing at the highest levels of intercollegiate tennis.
Does Race Matter?
Does race matter in college tennis?
"For me, I don't see it," says Kops-Jones, who won the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships in October in Los Angeles, making her the first African-American to win a women's collegiate singles title at the NCAA Division I level.
"[Race] could be there, but I don't have issues with it," she said.
Still, Kops-Jones, who is 22, said the Williams sisters provide inspiration: "The way they carry themselves on and off the court. They're well respected. They have changed the game of tennis."
But the change has less to do with race and deportment than strength, she suggested. "It's now a lot more about power. Even in doubles, and they're not the greatest, they know how to hit…and they win because they have big serves."
Raquel Kops-Jones, who plays for the University of California at Berkeley, ranks No. 2 in the country. (UC Berkeley Athletic Department)
Kops-Jones's coach at Berkeley, Jan Brogan, said ethnicity is a factor in college tennis because so few African-Americans have the financial resources to pursue tennis as a way of earning a college scholarship.
"People talk about being color-blind, which is nice to have, but until we [overcome discrimination], let's not pretend to be color-blind, because there's as much racism and class-ism in our country as ever," she said.
Brogan said that when she talks to Kops-Jones, "I see she's proud of her ethnicity and she proud that her success will reflect well."
Race has been a factor as well for Magley, an All-American at Florida, where she is one of two African-Americans on the nation's top-ranked women's team.
"It may sound corny," says Magley, who turns 20 this month, "but it really has taken more than a village to reach the level that I'm at because I don't have the same economic background of my opponents."
An Early Start
Because of her athletic prowess, Magley attended a camp sponsored by the American Tennis Association, a black organization that works to develop talented players.
Miami's Bradley and Georgia's Robinson attended the same camp. All three are now in the top ranks of college tennis.
From the age of 13 to 18, Magley trained at a sports academy in Bradenton, Fla. The tennis program was run by Bob Davis, an associate of Arthur Ashe. The experience catapulted Magley to a higher level, thanks to the sacrifice of Davis and others, she said.
Magley's mother, Evelyn, says two other factors helped her daughter: determination and consistency.
"I believe that she's been given a gift by God but she has worked very hard to do something with that gift," she said. "In the fifth grade, she used to wake herself up at 5 in the morning to hit tennis balls in our basement.
She would try to hit 100 in a row; if she missed, she would start over."
Much of Magley's success stems from a positive attitude, which, her mother points out, she believes in sharing with other African-Americans.
"In high school, she started a group in Bradenton called Pearls of Grace to help young girls at risk to build self-esteem."
Talking on the phone, Magley exudes confidence and joyfulness. "I'm enjoying myself at college. I want to continue as long as I can."
But there's no secret: Magley, like Kops-Jones and many of their young African-American contemporaries, is poised to take another step.
Following the path walked by the Williams sisters and that long-ago champion Althea Gibson, they want to play on the world tennis tour.
The Official Fashionista of the Royal Court