Updated 9:00 AM ET, Mon September 26, 2022
Atlanta (Camy Arnett Production Studios) - In Part 1 of this two-part series, "Why Tennis? Why Now?", I had the privilege of speaking with the facilitators of the 21st HBCU National Tennis Championship and the tennis parents committed to the game. Clearly the coordinators and parents were on board with legacy.
I wondered, however, what the college players, the next generation, had to say. What compelled them to come from around the globe to South Fulton GA on a sunny fall weekend? I found the answer in a group of five players from Alabama A&M University who were originally from Spain, Paraguay, Canada, Benin and Birmingham, Alabama. Of the five, only one was a U.S. native.
Their consensus was that tennis and the pursuit of education brought them to A&M and the thirst for excellence brought them to the championships. They were there to make their mark. They had found their tribe.
“Why is tennis important for your generation at a time like this?”, I asked. Ari Ondo, a player from Spain, sliced the question with her proverbial racket. Admittedly I wasn’t ready.
"Our generation is very protected. I won’t say spoiled. I’ll say protected. If I compare myself to my friends, I’m different. Tennis makes us face our challenges. It has to come from within. When situations in life happen, I know how to face them by myself if need be. That’s why I like tennis. It’s head on."
I was blindsided and yet I agreed. Though ten of our twelve children have been involved with the sport I hadn’t considered that the eye to eye combat made this sport a bit different. (Boxing and wrestling were the only others that I could come up with. Though golf is similar, it’s slightly different in that the opponent is not confronted head on. )
We hear a lot from Gen Z, but much of it comes from behind the veil of social media. Ari’s statement made me think. She was right. In tennis you do not have the security of a team backing you. I wondered how well our children were confronting life in person. Though passionate and outspoken in their views, they’re often speaking from the inaccessible soap boxes of virtual realities.
When asked if they saw tennis as a platform for social change, Lebo Mashego of Birmingham, Alabama jumped in. “In my lifetime I want to go back to Alabama where I’m from and build black tennis centers because right now most of the facilities are country clubs. No one can really go out there especially if you’re black. I’ve experienced so much racial stuff in Alabama and I know my dad has too. I want to change it to make it more of an inclusive sport instead of a white man’s sport in Alabama.”
Canadian native Chetanna Amadike agreed.
I’m from Canada and most of the people I play are white. And like Lebo said, most of the games are at country clubs. As much as I can go to a country club, it just doesn’t feel the same as when I’m here [at this event]. I’ve dealt with parents of the kids I’ve played. They don’t really care. They say whatever. It definitely builds thick skin.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a sidebar from a team player that arrested my ear. Vence N’tcha of Benin, West Africa is a nineteen year old player who asserts that he was born on the tennis courts. Having played since the age of five in his home town, he expressed the cultural shock of moving from Benin to the states. While tennis is a universal language, he soon found out that race was not.
Of mixed heritage, N’tcha does not have the darker skin that is the norm back in Benin. “Back home people see me as a white guy. They pointed me out as different all the time. I thought it was funny. Then I came to the U.S. and it’s the total opposite. I’m fully black here. I’ve definitely experienced some uncomfortable situations I didn’t want to be in. The crowd staring at you. The coaches staring at you during the matches. Hearing curse words behind your back during the match.”
I asked how he’d made such a jarring transition.
"Over there I’m seen as a privileged guy. I had all the rights possible. That’s how I felt. I come here and I’m scared of crossing the road. Right before I came my mom told me, ‘Whatever happens, run.’ I’ve never had a thought of being watched or threatened for something I didn’t do. Back home they welcome everyone. Yeah I’m white over there.”
N'tcha's words stuck as I closed and thanked them for the insight. I weaved my way through players and recruiters and headed to take my six year old to her first match at an upscale north Atlanta country club. I had a lot to consider as I added mothering back to my already full plate of journalism.
I’d come for a feel good story of how the coming generation was making different headlines than the ones we’d seen. I’d gotten that. I came to get a better understanding of why the need for tennis and an HBCU tournament in 2022. I’d gotten that.
Yet there was one thing I didn’t get and may never in my lifetime. In the midst of the sun rays, fresh air and the fuzzy feelings of this post pandemic gathering, the nemesis of racial and social injustice had shown up uninvited.
I turned and looked at my six year old daughter in the back seat with eyes full of hope at the excitement of playing her first game. In a decade, when she is college age, would she have the same sentiments of loving the game yet abhorring the atmosphere? How long would our protective community be able to extend the age of innocence before a dark world brought an overcast to her blue skies?
Would today be the day that she had a negative encounter because of her skin? If not her, then which of her peers worldwide would be exposed to the evil of men for the first time today? While I could not answer that, what I could emphatically say is – That’s Why Now. That’s Why Tennis. That’s Why Pivotal Times and That is Why the Lord Jesus Christ. To extend the age of innocence for the next generation a little longer than it lasted for us.
This is Pivotal signing off. Until next time, Bow before God. Stand before men. Be well.
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