WIMBLEDON, England — For the first time in nearly half a century, a weekend at Wimbledon felt and looked different.
Nick Kyrgios and Ons Jaber brought new variety to the men’s and women’s singles finals. Jaber, of Tunisia, became the first North African player to reach the singles final. Kyrgios, an Australian with Malaysian roots and a well-documented cheat who marks him as completely different from his peers, was playing in his first Grand Slam final. Jabeur and Kyrgios lost, but that’s not the point.
Not since 1975, when Arthur Ashe and Yvonne Golagong reached the final, have both championship matches combined been as diverse. Tennis evolves in games and starts, and nowhere is that more true than at Wimbledon.
Watching the fans at Center Court over the past two weeks has been a testament to how difficult change can be, especially when it comes to race.
A very familiar uniformity in the stands. Except for a splash of color here and there, a sea of whiteness. For me, a black guy who played the game in the minor leagues and always hopes that it will break through the old way – seeing the lack of color always feels gut-wrenching, especially at Wimbledon in London.
After Saturday’s women’s final, I stood next to a column near one of the center court exits. Hundreds walked. Then a few thousand. I counted about a dozen black faces. This grand event takes place in one of the world’s most diverse metropolises, a hub for expats from all over the world. You can’t tell by looking at the audience. There were a few Asian faces. A few muslims in hijab. The Sikh community is huge in London. I saw only one traditional Sikh turban in court.
When I pulled aside a few black fans and asked them if they knew how rare they were in the crowd, the response was always as quick as a Jabeur forehand volley or a Kyrgios serve. “How can I not?” said James Smith, a resident of London. “I saw a boy in the section 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 noticed,” said Coco Goff, the American teen star, when we spoke last week. According to him, he is so focused when he plays that he barely notices the crowd. But afterwards, when he looks at the photos taken at Wimbledon, the images startle him. “There aren’t many black faces in the crowd.”
Gough compared Wimbledon to the US Open, which has a more down-to-earth feel like the world’s largest public park tournament and a much more diverse crowd.
“It’s really strange here, because London is supposed to be such a big melting pot,” Gough added, pondering for a moment why.
Going to Wimbledon, like going to major sporting events in North America and beyond, requires a lot of commitment. Experienced and traditional Wimbledon goes beyond this commitment. You cannot go online to buy tickets. There is a lottery system for many places. Some fans park in a nearby park and camp overnight to attend. The cost is not exactly cheap.
“They say it’s open to everyone, but the ticketing system is set up with so many hurdles it seems like it’s designed to exclude people of a certain persuasion,” said Densel Frith, a black building contractor who lives in London.
He told me he paid about 100 pounds for the ticket, about $120. That’s a lot of money for a guy who called himself strictly blue collar. “I won’t be back tomorrow,” he added. “Who can afford that?” People in our society can’t do that. In any way. In any way. In any way.”
There is more to it than access and value. something deeper. Wimbledon’s prestige and tradition are its greatest asset and its Achilles’ heel. The place feels great – tennis in an English garden is not hyperbolic – but stooped and sore and stuck in itself.
“Think about what Wimbledon means to so many of us,” said Lorraine Sebata, 38, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in London.
“For us it represents the system,” he added. “Colonial system. Hierarchy’, which is still at the foundation of English society. You’re looking at the royal box, the white dress code of the Victorian era at this tournament and you can’t miss it.
Sebata described herself as an avid fan. He has been fond of tennis since Pete Sampras, although he does not play. Her friend Diana Kazazi, a social worker who came to England from Uganda and the Netherlands, is equally passionate about the game. As we spoke, they looked around—up and down the hallway, outside the grand, ivy-lined central court—and found no one who shared the African heritage they shared. They said they had many black friends who loved tennis but didn’t feel they could be part of Wimbledon, which was located in an upscale suburb that felt exclusive and far from the everyday.
“There is an institution and a history behind this tournament that maintains the status quo,” Kazaz said. “You have to get out of the box as a fan to get over it.” He continued: “It’s a story that we like 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 understand. I know exactly where these fans were coming from. I felt their concern, bitterness and doubt whether anything would change. Honestly, it hurts.
Maybe it helps to know what Wimbledon means to me.
As I enter the gate, beyond the leafy, two-lane church road, I start getting goosebumps. 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 Noes at the French Open in 1983, I was 9 years old. – of the year whose sports love was the Seattle SuperSonics.
Ashe, with her graceful game and keen intelligence, her afro and skin that was similar to mine, convinced me to make tennis my sport.
Wimbledon didn’t change the trajectory of my life, but it did change the direction.
I became a nationally ranked junior and college player. I spent a little over a year in the minor leagues of the professional game and reached 448th place in the ATP ranking list. Non-white players were almost as rare in my time as they were in Arthur’s.
Today, as we witnessed this weekend, there is a new crop of talent. Serena and Venus Williams teamed up as their North Star. And yet there is much work to be done. Not just on the court, but in attracting fans to the game and at a tennis monument like Wimbledon. A big job that will take a long time.