“Listen up. You don’t need five or six kids showing me that someone cut her hand,” growls Coach Dante Brown. “Get back to your laps.” “I already did seven,” groans one little girl. “I did seven, too,” says another. Ahead of the group, two chubby little boys in matching snug sweatsuits speed up as they pass by, watching their coach out of the corners of their eyes. The children, who aren’t all that much bigger than the rackets they’ll be swinging later, are members of the city-funded Harlem Junior Tennis Program. Two days a week, they take lessons at the Harlem Tennis Center, where professional tennis coaches instruct them in the rules of the game.
I stumbled across the Harlem Tennis Center one afternoon while looking for a place to play. When I found the rambling building on 143rd Street – a former military armory hidden behind the Bethune Apartments on Lenox Avenue – I was surprised. Like many people, I hadn’t thought of tennis as a sport many black people play, despite the success of stars like Venus and Serena Williams, Arthur Ashe, and Althea Gibson. “Tennis?” was my girlfriend’s response when I asked her if she wanted to join me. She looked as if I’d told her John McEnroe had challenged me to a match. “Who plays tennis?” Before I could reply, she answered her own question. “We don’t.”
As it turns out, we do. “Most people don’t even know we’re here,” says Claude Cargill (pictured), co-director of the Harlem Tennis Center. Now 85, and still sporty in his Adidas sweatsuit and baseball cap perched atop his gray hair, Cargill began playing in the forties and founded the center as part of the Police Athletic League. In 1985, Mayor Koch converted the center into a homeless shelter. “We just pushed the beds aside to play, and then pushed them back when we were done,” Cargill recalls. He managed to reopen the center a few years later, and has been running it ever since with his partner, Zack Davis. Today, it’s home to more than 1,000 players, including doctors, firemen, actors, cops, teachers, and 150 Harlem schoolchildren.
Davis, who is also the head coach of the City College tennis team, arrived at the center in the early fifties. He’d heard it was a great place to play – and the only place if you wanted to play in Harlem. He laughs when I mention that people say tennis is a white sport. “I’ve been playing tennis since I was a child,” he says. He remembers walking home from school as a teenager and seeing a girl who used to play on the courts across the street from his house in Greensboro, North Carolina. That girl turned out to be Althea Gibson. In 1957 she became the first black person to win Wimbledon. (She also won in ‘58.)
“I want to go pro by the time I’m 14 or 15,” says Ashley Perryman, 11. She and her brother David, 13, have been coming to the center for four years. Ashley’s goals aren’t too unrealistic, considering that two of the top U.S. college players, now pro, both graduated from the program: the 1999 No. 1-ranked NCAA player, James Blake, All-American at Harvard, and his brother Thomas, also All-American at Harvard. The center’s children are a crucial part of its existence, bringing in both city and private funding.
“Our goal is to get them tennis scholarships to college,” says children’s coach Brown. “Let’s face it: We don’t always have the money in our communities.” A scholarship is exactly what Dwayne Perryman wants for his two children. “Most black heroes are basketball or football players,” says Perryman, sitting in the stands and yelling instructions to the children as they play each another in a mock match. “This gives them a chance to see something different.”