Tennis has its origins in the medieval era, but the modern form of lawn tennis was patented in 1874 by Walter C. Wingfield in Great Britain. The first Wimbledon tournament was played in 1877. The first tennis court in the U.S. was built in 1876, and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1881. International competition began in 1900 with the first Davis Cup tournament between the U.S. and Great Britain.
African-American universities, including Tuskegee and Howard, offered tennis to students from the 1890s. Beginning in 1898 at Philadelphia’s Chautauqua Tennis Club, African-American tennis players from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast competed in invitational tournaments. When the USLTA issued a policy statement formally barring African-American tennis players from its competitions, the Association Tennis Club of Washington, DC, and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Maryland, conceived the idea of the American Tennis Association (ATA).
The ATA was born when representatives from more than a dozen black tennis clubs met in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 30, 1916, Thanksgiving Day. Dr. Harry S. McCard, Dr. William H. Wright, Dr. B.M. Rhetta, Ralph Cook, Henry Freeman, and Tally Holmes were among the ATA’s founding fathers. Holmes, of Washington, D.C., won the first two ATA men’s singles titles.
In August 1917, the organization held its first ATA National Championships, consisting of three events (men’s and women’s singles and men’s doubles), at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park in August 1917.
Knowing that large groups of blacks would not be accommodated at most hotels, especially in the south, the early ATA National Championships were held at various Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Morehouse College, Central State, and Lincoln University. These black campuses provided tennis courts and sufficient housing space. The college administrators were delighted to have so many prosperous and potential donors, affiliated with their campuses. The ATA national soon became one of the most anticipated social events of the year in the black community. Formal dances, fashion shows, and other activities were planned during the week of play.
The wall of segregation in tennis began to crumble when white player, Don Budge, who became the first American to win the “grand slam” of tennis (French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and Australian Open) in 1938, competed at the ATA-affiliated Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in New York City on July 29, 1940. Budge played and won a singles match against Jimmy McDaniel, the ATA champion. He then paired in doubles with Dr. Weir against McDaniel and Richard Cohen. Weir again made history in 1948 when he competed in New York at the U.S. Indoor Lawn Tennis Championship.
The USLTA color line was finally broken with prodding from within the association by Alice Marble and Edward Niles and from outside by the ATA. Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, Dr. Hubert Eaton, and Bertram Baker were among the ATA officials were the key force behind negotiations that in 1950 led to the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s acceptance of Althea Gibson’s application to become the first Black to ever compete in the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills.
During her first match, a bolt of lightning struck and knocked a concrete eagle off the top of the stadium. Gibson thought, “It may have been an omen that times were changing.” Two years later, Reginald Weir and George Stewart would be the first African-American men to play at the U.S. Open at Forest Lawn, on August 29, 1952.
Between 1956 and 1958, Althea Gibson was the world’s dominant woman player. She won on clay at the French Open in 1956, as well as the All-England Lawn Tennis Women’s Single’s championship in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Open in both 1957 and 1958. She was also a finalist in the 1957 Australian Open.
In subsequent years, Mr. Baker, ATA Executive Secretary from 1936 – 1966, hammered out an arrangement that enabled ATA champions to obtain a wild card entry into the prestigious event.
Dr. Walter Johnson was credited with founding the first formalized ATA Junior Development program designed to train talented young African American players at his home in Lynchburg, VA. Each summer, a group of the most talented minority youth from across the country would gather at his home to train and play tournaments. One of those outstanding players was Arthur Ashe. Dr. Johnson immediately recognized Ashe as the next equivalent to Althea Gibson. Ashe’s quiet and cool demeanor allowed him to stay focused on the game and not be distracted by insults, bad calls, cheating, and verbal abuse.
Ashe’s success as a Davis Cup player and his U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles are legendary. But, his recognition at tennis became the tool that he would use to challenge society to end the racial injustice that plagued the planet. He made several trips to South Africa (against the wishes of many Black leaders in America) to pressure the government to end apartheid. He marched on Washington in support of the fair treatment of Haitian refugees. His life was dedicated to the elevation of his people. He focused a great deal of his attention on education. He encouraged youngsters to become doctors and lawyers. He wanted youngsters to attend and graduate from college instead of putting all of their energy into athletics.
The ATA has produced several of the world’s top players and coaches. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, the first African Americans to be ranked No. 1 and to win Grand Slam titles, were sponsored and groomed by ATA officials and coaches.
Most African American professional tennis players were trained by ATA Clubs and played ATA Tournaments before turning pro. The list includes such greats as Zina Garrison, Leslie Allen, Lori McNeil, Chandra Rubin, Katrina Adams, and Mali Vai Washington to name of few.
Today the ATA continues its rich history of developing young tennis players and providing ATA members with the opportunity to compete in our National Championships. Plans are underway to develop a permanent home for the ATA that will serve as a National Training Facility and will house the ATA Tennis Hall of Fame.
Dr. Walter R. (Whirlwind) Johnson
Coach of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and many others.
Dr. Reginald Weir
First Black Man to compete in National USLTA Event
Henry Freeman (L)
Tally Holmes (R)
First ATA Singles Champion,1917