Arthur Ashe’s death 20 years later: No black American men’s tennis stars have emerged

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When Sloane Stephens defeated Serena Williams in the Australian Open last month to reach the semi-finals, it showed a potential passing of the torch.

A torch pass (or several) between black athletes is what Arthur Ashe envisioned when he dominated the game in the late 1960s and 70s. Today marks the 20th anniversary of Ashe’s passing, and while the ground he paved through tennis has certainly helped African-Americans in the sport, the results of dominant black tennis players has generally been mixed.

For years, Williams and her sister Venus have dominated women’s tennis. Their attacking and aggressive play have made them entertaining to tennis fans, and changed the way we view female tennis players. Their grace and humility have made them enticing spokeswomen to sponsors and consumers.

As both their careers begin to wind down, Stephens may be the next great African-American women’s tennis player. At just 19, she’s young, talented and beautiful…the three traits needed for sport and crossover success.

While the Williams sisters have been the most skilled and dominant players in the game since Serena’s first win in 1999, the men’s game hasn’t seen many players with the skill that Ashe had.

Part of this speaks to the dearth of great American players in general, as Jimmy Conners, Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Samprass, and Andy Roddick were the only true star American players since Ashe. But the number of African-American male tennis players has been virtually nonexistent.

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Ashe became the first African-American male to reach the Wimbledon finals in 1975. Since then, there’s only been one other player to achieve the feat: MaliVai Washington in 1996. Other than the Wimbledon appearance, Washington has had a largely unheralded career.

His passing on February 6, 1993, was not only monumental for all he accomplished off the court with HIV/AIDS awareness — Ashe’s death left a hole in tennis that has yet to be filled.

There have been no black American male tennis stars since Ashe’s passing.

James Blake has long been viewed as the next great black player, but his career never reached its lofty expectations. Blake was once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world. But he’s never achieved any level of success in majors (he’s never even played in a final), which is largely what we judge great tennis players on. His comeback in 2005 was remarkable, and earned him notoriety from both tennis fans and non-fans alike, but he has been far from the next great black tennis star after Ashe.

Donald Young looked like he was on his way to becoming that star after a memorable run in the 2011 U.S. Open. His 15 minutes of fame ended quickly, as he’s never been able to replicate a similar run during any tournament of consequence. In fact, he’s currently barely ranked in the top 200. The top current black male player is France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who at least has an Australian Open final on his playing resume.

Ashe’s contributions weren’t just to the sport of tennis. He was an advocate for change, helped spread AIDS awareness education, and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom after his passing. Many of the game’s current minority players consider Ashe a role model.

While Ashe opened doors for young black players, unfortunately very few walked through them. For every Serena who developed a passion for the game at a young age and seized her opportunity, there are thousands of black players who either weren’t interested or didn’t have the talent to become a truly great player.

When Ashe won Wimbledon nearly 40 years ago, the country was surprised that a black men’s player could win one of the game’s greatest honors. If a black men’s player won today, we unfortunately might be just as surprised.

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace