The price to play

Erick Johnson | 3/27/2014, 9 a.m.
With a headset, Donald Young Jr. stood in the hallway of the stadium court waiting as Serena Williams battled her ...
Serena Williams returns the ball against Yaroslava Shvedova during their match on day 4 of the Sony Open on March 20 in Key Biscayne.

Ask any player, professional coach or tennis official about the number one challenge in the sport and they will most likely say it’s the bottom line. But a Black parent or player will give a bigger story.

“It’s financial racism.,” said Larry Pye Sr., whose son, Larry, 16 is another rising tennis star. “Every tournament you have to play is important and there are the hotel travel expenses and playing fees. If you don’t play, your child drops in the rankings and the consistency decreases.

Frustrated Black coaches and even White trainers have growing concerns that money have corrupted and spoiled American tennis, moving the sport away from its purpose of producing top players. And with a record number of promising Black stars who continue to climb the rankings with little money, tennis executives are opening their eyes to what Black parents and coaches and many knew all along: there’s value and untapped potential in Black players who are leaving the sport because they cannot afford the overwhelming costs to compete.

It’s a debate of talent versus environment. Critics say the success of Black players would be even higher if their environment and opportunities were equal to Whites and other ethnic groups.

“The talent is there but the money isn’t,” said Juandell Brunner a tennis coach at Tamiami Tennis Center. “It’s bad.”

Brunnell and other Black coaches and parents have urged sweeping reforms for the sports’ governing body, the United States Tennis Association, but before any changes are made, tennis officials agree that the sport must return to its purpose of giving kids from less affluent families an opportunity to play in a sport known for its country club allure and elitist atmosphere.

On a Saturday afternoon at Moore Park in March, Monica Lewis watches her 14-year old daughter, Roshoni, play a second round match at a USTA intermediate tournament on Althea Gibson Court, named after the first Black player to win Wimbledon, considered the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.

With a powerful serve, Roshoni is competing in the 18- year-old division to test her skills and motivation. She began playing just a year ago after her mother, fresh from a divorce, took her to Moore Park just “to have someplace to go.”

Roshoni came to the tennis facility named after Butch Bucholtz, founder of the Sony Ericcson. There, she began playing with her sisters, Chachadyha, 12 and Shamayim, 16. Roshoni spent hours on the court before she competed on the state level where she is now ranked in the top 100 in her age group.

Despite her talent, Roshoni faces an uphill battle against her competitors, whose parents fill the parking lot with Land Rovers and Mercedes Benzes. A single parent, Roshoni’s mother is currently on welfare as she attends college for a nursing degree. With little money, she struggles to find ways to pay for her daughters tennis lessons and expenses.

She participates in First Serve Miami, a program that pays some expenses for low-income kids in Miami, but Lewis says its not enough. She constantly searches for private sponsors among Black businesses since White and Hispanic parents have already secured deals in their own, more affluent neighborhoods.