Wimbledon needs more Arthur Ashe moments, on and off the pitch

WIMBLEDON, England – For the first time in almost half a century, a weekend at Wimbledon felt and looked different.

Nick Kyrgios and Ons Jabeur brought fresh diversity to the men’s and women’s singles finals. Jabeur of Tunisia became the first North African player to make it to a singles final. Kyrgios, an Australian with Malaysian roots and a well-documented pride that sets him apart from his peers, was playing in his first Grand Slam final. Jabeur and Kyrgios both lost in the end, but that’s beside the point.

Not since 1975, when Arthur Ashe and Evonne Goolagong had made it to the final, both championship games together could have been just as varied. Tennis evolves in fits and starts, and nowhere does that feel more true than at Wimbledon.

One look at the crowd on Center Court over the past two weeks has been to see how difficult it is to bring about change, particularly when it comes to racing.

An all too familiar homogeneity in the stands. Apart from a dash of color here and there, a sea of ​​white. For me, as a black man who’s played the game in the smaller leagues and always hopes it puts his old ways behind him – seeing a lack of color always feels like a punch in the stomach, especially at Wimbledon in London.

After Saturday’s women’s final, I stood next to a pillar near one of the Center Court exits. Hundreds passed. Then a few thousand. I counted about a dozen black faces. This great event takes place in one of the most diverse metropolises in the world, a hub for immigrants from all over the world. The viewers wouldn’t notice that. There were some Asian faces. A few Muslims in hijabs. The Sikh community in London is huge. I have only seen one of the traditional Sikh turbans at court.

When I pulled a few of the Black fans aside and asked if they realized how rare they were in the crowd, the response was always as quick as a Jabeur forehand volley or a Kyrgios serve. “How could I not?” said James Smith, a resident of London. “I saw a guy in a section right above me. We smiled at each other. I don’t know the man, but there was a connection. We knew we were few.”

The fans see it.

And the players too.

“I definitely notice it,” Coco Gauff, the American teen star, said when we spoke last week. She said she’s so focused when she’s playing that she barely notices the crowd. But when she later looks at photos of herself at Wimbledon, the images are startling. “Not many black faces in the crowd.”

Gauff compared Wimbledon to the US Open, which has a more down-to-earth feel, like the world’s largest public park tournament, and a far more diverse crowd.

“It’s definitely weird here because London’s supposed to be such a big melting pot,” Gauff added, pondering why for a while.

Going to Wimbledon, like competing in major sporting events across North America and far beyond, requires tremendous commitment. Tried and tested, traditional Wimbledon pushes this commitment to its limits. You cannot go online to buy tickets. There is a lottery system for many places. Some fans line up at a nearby park and camp overnight to attend. The costs are not cheap.

“They say it’s open to everyone, but the ticketing system has so many hurdles it’s almost like it’s designed to exclude people of a certain belief,” said Densel Frith, a black builder living in London.

He told me he paid about £100 for his ticket, about $120. That’s a lot of money for a man who describes himself as a pure worker. “I’m not coming back tomorrow,” he added. “Who can afford that? People in our community can’t afford that. No way. No way. No way.”

It’s about more than access and cost. Something deeper. The prestige and tradition of Wimbledon is its greatest asset and an Achilles’ heel. The place feels wonderful – tennis in an English garden is no exaggeration – but also stuffy and ponderous and on its own.

“Think about what Wimbledon represents for so many of us,” said Lorraine Sebata, 38, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in London.

“For us, it represents the system,” she added. “The Colonial System. The Hierarchy” which is still the bedrock of English society. You look at the royal box, which is as white as the all-white Victorian-era dress code at this tournament, and you can’t miss it.

Sebata described herself as a passionate fan. She has loved tennis since the Pete Sampras days, although she does not play. Her friend Dianah Kazazi, a social worker who came to England from Uganda and the Netherlands, shares the same passion for the game. As we spoke, they looked around — up and down a corridor just outside the majestic, ivy-covered Center Court — and couldn’t find anyone who seemed to have the African heritage they shared. They said they have many black friends who enjoy tennis but don’t feel like they’re a part of Wimbledon, which is in a luxurious suburb that feels exclusive and so far removed from everyday life.

“Behind this tournament is an institution and a history that perpetuates the status quo,” said Kazazi. “You have to think outside the box as a fan to get around that.” She continued, “It’s the story that speaks to us as fans, but that story says something to people who don’t feel comfortable coming.” For many people of color in England, tennis is simply not seen as “something for us”.

I have understood. I know exactly where these fans came from. I felt their dismay and bitterness and doubts if things would change. honesty, it hurt.

Maybe it helps to know what Wimbledon means to me.

I get goosebumps stepping into the gates off the leafy dual carriageway of Church Road. On July 5, 1975, when Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors to become the first black man to win the Wimbledon singles title and the only black man to win a Grand Slam tournament title other than Yannick Noah at the 1983 French Open, I was a 9-year-old whose love of sports was the Seattle SuperSonics.

Seeing Ashe, with his graceful play and sharp intelligence, afro and skin that resembled mine, convinced me to make tennis my sport.

Wimbledon didn’t change the trajectory of my life, but it did change direction.

I became a nationally ranked junior and collegiate player. I spent a little over a year in the minor leagues of professional play and peaked at No. 448 on the ATP rankings. Non-white players were almost as rare in my day as they were in Arthur’s day.

Today, as we just saw this weekend, there is a burgeoning new breed of talent. Together, Serena and Venus Williams form their North Star. And yet there is a lot to do. Not just on the court, but also to attract fans to the game and get them into the stands of a monument to tennis like Wimbledon. A lot of work that will take a lot of time.

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