Commentary

The decline of Hispanic tennis players

Updated: October 4, 2011, 2:42 PM ET
By Viv Bernstein | Special to ESPN.com

When Gigi Fernandez and Mary Joe Fernandez were ranked among the top women's tennis players in the world in the 1990s, they also belonged to an even more exclusive club: high-profile Hispanic-Americans in the sport. You think African-Americans are rare in tennis? James Blake, Donald Young, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys all played singles in this year's U.S. Open. There were no Hispanic-Americans, and that's hardly a surprise.

You have to go back decades to find premier Hispanic-American men such as Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura in the 1950s and 60s. As for women? There were the Fernandezes, who are not related, and Rosie Casals from the 1960s to the '80s. But there haven't been many more than that.

[+] EnlargeNick Bollettieri
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesNick Bollettieri firmly believes lack of funding has led to the decline in notable Hispanic players.

It's almost odd, given that Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States today and some of the world's best athletes in baseball, football, basketball and boxing, among other sports. And yet, as America commemorates National Hispanic Heritage Month, they're still far from creating their own heritage in tennis.

It's not as if role models are lacking in the world. Spain's Rafael Nadal tops a long, impressive list of highly ranked Spanish tennis players. Gabriela Sabatini from Argentina was among the dominant women in the 1980s and '90s, followed by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a four-time Grand Slam winner from Spain.

But there has been no corresponding boom in the states, for a variety of reasons.

Start with money.

"Well, if you just travel the parks of Chicago, New York and Boston, where do you see the Latin Americans, the Spanish, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, where are they?" Nick Bollettieri, whose tennis academy has produced some of the top American players, said in a recent telephone interview. "They're at the park shooting baskets or kicking a ball, and it costs no money. Tennis is a very, very expensive sport.

"So where are these young people going to get the money to play tennis when a pair of sneakers is a [hundred] and a racket is $200? So that's $300. Where are they going to get that?"

Bollettieri believes it is up to others to help develop premier athletes in minority communities. Over the years, he has done his part.

"Let's go back to 1987, Arthur Ashe and I sitting on a bench at the French Open," Bollettieri said. "And Arthur Ashe said to me, 'Nick, what are we going to do about the hundreds of thousands of boys and girls that never get a chance to hit a ball?' I said, 'Arthur, I'll take care of it.' What did I do? I started the Ashe voluntary program in Newark, N.J., that ran for 13 years. And basically I helped raise the money, worked with the recreation department, look what we did. We went out and raised money to do this.

"We have to get funded programs, the same as what I did in the '80s and '90s. Most of my good kids, black, Latin American, Spanish, it didn't make any difference. Most of them were on scholarship."

Of course, Mary Joe Fernandez didn't need money when she started out. Born in the Dominican Republic, her family moved to Miami when she was 6 months old. As a young child, she began by hitting a tennis ball against a wall. Later, she was discovered by a tennis coach who offered her free lessons. That's how Fernandez got started in the sport.

She doesn't believe money is a roadblock for everyone.

"I don't know if that's as true anymore, because there's so many public facilities and there are so many programs available to children especially,'' said Fernandez, who reached three Grand Slam singles finals and won two Slam doubles titles in a career that spanned from the late 1980s to 2000. She also won two Olympic gold medals for Team USA paired with Gigi Fernandez in women's doubles. Mary Joe Fernandez is now a broadcaster.

Many of those programs are administered by the United States Tennis Association, which also offers grants to young multicultural players and reaches out to communities with its Tennis in the Park program among its initiatives. The USTA is also trying to make the sport more kid friendly with its 10-and-under tennis initiative that allows children to learn the game with smaller courts and rackets and bigger tennis balls.

"The USTA can't do it all," Bollettieri said. "[General manager of USTA player development] Patrick McEnroe's doing a hell of a job, but he can only do so much. Money is the issue and it's sad. It is, because I feel what's missing today, just the hungry, passionate person that has a lot of athletic abilities that would give their lives to play but because of the financial crunch, 90 percent of them will never get out of the box."

But the USTA can do more, said Gigi Fernandez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and was named the country's female athlete of the century. She managed to overcome bias by coaches who refused to teach girls to go on and win 17 Grand Slam doubles titles in the 1980s and '90s and two Olympic golds with Mary Joe Fernandez.

"I'd like to see more appearances at predominantly Hispanic communities and tennis centers and whatnot," Gigi Fernandez said. "You can never do enough. The more you expose Hispanic kids to tennis, the more they're going to be interested in it."

Gigi Fernandez is helping to bring sports to youth as well. She founded Baby Goes Pro, a company that offers DVDs to parents to help children as young as 4 and under learn how to play sports. The DVDs focus on all sports, not just tennis, so that children can become active at an early age.

[+] EnlargeFernandez
Frank Leonhardt/AFP/Getty ImagesGigi Fernandez won 17 Grand Slam titles in doubles and was later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

"When I was growing up, I played everything," she said. "I played softball, I played volleyball, I played basketball, I played tennis. I think when you're little, it's good and healthy just to do everything."

But with so many choices, tennis isn't always the top option for children as they develop as athletes and choose a sport. Mary Joe Fernandez believes that might be why there aren't many great Hispanic-American tennis players today. It's the same reason there aren't that many great Americans overall, regardless of ethnic background. The best athletes are simply choosing other sports.

"There are so many options nowadays," she said. "You can have this conversation about American tennis, too.

"All you can do is keep reaching out grassroots and keep going to the communities and trying to introduce it. I think the 10-and-under tennis, which the USTA started, is a fantastic program to get children involved because it downsized the game of tennis to their level. ... I think that's going to help. I think that's going to be an important factor in getting more -- not just Hispanic, just in general -- people playing the sport."

In the meantime, there is some hope for those looking for the next Hispanic American who could make an impact in tennis. Irina Falconi and Christina McHale are up-and-comers with Hispanic roots. There is Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, who is currently sixth in the world ITF junior rankings having reached the Junior Grand Slam finals of the Australian Open and French Open this year. And Marcos Giron, a UCLA freshman who lost to Jack Sock in the semifinals of the USTA Boys 18s national championships.

It's too early to know if they will someday emerge as premier players in tennis. But as Hispanic Americans celebrate their heritage this month, it's not too soon to hope.

Viv Bernstein is a freelance writer for ESPN.com.

Viv Bernstein

Contributor, espnW.com
Viv Bernstein is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C., a Yankee transplant in a Bible belt town that is home to Billy Graham's library, banks, stock-car racing and that signature Southern culinary abomination: Barbecue. Over the years, she has written for many publications and web sites, covering everything from the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500.