WIMBLEDON, England — For the first time in nearly a half-century, a weekend at Wimbledon felt, and looked, different.
Nick Kyrgios and Ons Jabeur brought a 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 swagger that marks him as something entirely different from his peers, was playing in his first Grand Slam final. Jabeur and Kyrgios each ended up losing, but that is beside the point.
Not since 1975, when Arthur Ashe and Evonne Goolagong made it to their finals, had both championship matches combined to be as diverse. Tennis evolves in fits and starts, and nowhere does that feel more true than at Wimbledon.
To look at the Center Court crowd these past two weeks was to see how hard change is to pull off, especially when it comes to race.
In the stands, an all-too-familiar homogeneity. Aside from a dappling of color here and there, a sea of whiteness. To me, a Black guy who played the game in the minor leagues and always hopes to see it move past its old ways — to see a lack of color always feels like a gut punch, particularly at Wimbledon in London.
After Saturday’s women’s final, I stood beside a pillar near one of the Center Court exits. Hundreds walked by. Then a few thousand. I counted roughly a dozen black faces. This grand event plays out in one of the most diverse metropolises in the world, a hub for immigrants from across the globe. You wouldn’t know that by looking at the spectators. There were some Asian faces. A few Muslims in hijabs. The Sikh community is huge in London. I saw only one of the traditional Sikh turbans at the court.
When I pulled a few of the Black fans aside and asked them if they felt aware of how rare they were in the crowd, the reply was always as swift as a Jabeur forehand volley or a Kyrgios serve. “How could I not?” said James Smith, a London resident. “I saw a guy in a section just above me. We smiled at each other. I don’t know the man, but there was a bond. We knew we were few and far between.
The fans see it.
And the players, too.
“I definitely noticed,” said Coco Gauff, the American teen star, when we spoke last week. She said she is so focused when she plays that she barely notices the crowd. But afterwards, when she looks at photographs of herself at Wimbledon, the images startle. “Not a lot of black faces in the crowd.”
Gauff compared Wimbledon with the US Open, which has a more down-to-earth feel, like the world’s greatest public parks tournament, and a far more varied crowd.
“It’s definitely weird here because London is supposed to be such a big melting pot,” Gauff added, pondering for a while, wondering why.
Going to Wimbledon, like going to big-time sporting events across North America and far beyond, requires a massive commitment. Tried and traditional Wimbledon pushes that commitment to its limits. You can’t go online to buy tickets. There’s a lottery system for many of the seats. Some fans line up in a nearby park, camping overnight to attend. The cost is not exactly cheap.
“They say it is open for all, but the ticket system is designed with so many hurdles that it’s almost as if it’s meant to exclude people of a certain persuasion,” said Densel Frith, a Black building contractor who lives in London.
He told me he’d paid about 100 pounds for his ticket, about $120. That’s a lot of money for a guy who described himself as strictly blue collar. “Not coming back tomorrow,” he added. Who can afford that? People from our community cannot afford that. No way. No way. No way.”
There’s more to it than access and cost. Something deeper. The prestige and tradition of Wimbledon are its greatest assets, and an Achilles’ heel. The place feels wonderful — tennis in an English garden is not hyperbole — but also stuffy and stodgy and stuck on itself.
“Think about what Wimbledon represents for so many of us,” said Lorraine Sebata, 38, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in London.
“To us it represents the system,” she added. “The colonial system. The hierarchy” that still sits at the foundation of English society. You look at the royal box, as white as the Victorian era all-white dress code at this tournament, and you cannot miss it.
Sebata described herself as a passionate fan. She has loved tennis since the days of Pete Sampras, although she does not play. Her friend Dianah Kazazi, a social worker who came to England from Uganda and the Netherlands, has an equal passion for the game. As we spoke, they looked around — up and down a corridor just outside the majestic, ivy-lined Center Court — and could not find anyone who appeared to have the African heritage they shared. They said they had many black friends who enjoyed tennis but did not feel they could be a part of Wimbledon, located in a luxurious suburb that feels exclusive and so far from the everyday.
“There is an establishment and a history behind this tournament that keeps things status quo,” Kazazi said. “You have to step outside of the box as a fan to get around that.” She continued: “It is the history that appeals to us as fans, but that history says something to people who don’t feel comfortable to come.” For many people of color in England, tennis is simply not seen as “something for us.”
I understood. I know exactly where these fans were coming from. I felt their dismay and bitterness and doubt about whether things would change. Honesty, it hurts.
Maybe it helps to know what Wimbledon means to me.
I get goose bumps whenever I enter the gates, off leafy, two-lane Church Road. On July 5, 1975, when Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors, becoming the first Black man to win the Wimbledon singles title and the only Black man to win a Grand Slam tournament title except Yannick Noah at the French Open in 1983, I was a 9 -year-old whose sports love was the Seattle SuperSonics.
Seeing Ashe with his graceful game and keen intelligence, his Afro and skin that looked like mine, persuaded me to make tennis my sport.
Wimbledon didn’t alter the trajectory of my life, but it did change the direction.
I became a nationally ranked junior and collegiate player. I spent a little over a year in the minor leagues of the professional game, reaching No. 448 on the ATP rankings list. Nonwhite players were nearly as rare in my time as in Arthur’s.
Today, as we just witnessed this weekend, there is a budding new crop of talent. Serena and Venus Williams combine as their North Star. And yet there is a lot of work to be done. Not only on the court, but in drawing fans to the game and getting them into the stands at a monument to tennis like Wimbledon. A whole lot of work that will take a whole lot of time.