Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams are some of the most prominent Black tennis players in history. There's at least one more name to add to that list: Bob Ryland. As the first Black professional tennis player ever, he helped pave the way for future Black Grand Slam champions.
On Monday, the sport lost a quiet legend when Ryland passed away in his home in New York. He was 100 years old.
FIRST BLACK MALE PRO Robert Ryland, who has died aged 100, was the first black male professional tennis player. Due to segregation, Ryland had to wait until he was 38 years old to compete as a professional, doing so in the World Pro Championships in 1959. Arthur Ashe once said: “My only dream in tennis is to become good enough to beat Bob Ryland.” Rest in power! ???????? #BlackSpinGlobal #RobertRyland #BobRyland #Ryland #100 #Centenarian #Pioneer #ArthurAshe #Ashe #USA #America #BlackTennis
At eight, Ryland picked up a racquet and would collect numerous titles during his junior career, before receiving a scholarship to Xavier University. After a year of competing, he would depart to serve the United States during World War II.
In 1945, the American would return to civilian life and receive another scholarship to play tennis for Wayne State University. His return home was far from warm and welcoming. There were many times that Ryland was forced to sleep in the team's bus or sit separately from his teammates at restaurants. Many places would not allow Ryland on their premises.
But Ryland continued to fight to play the game he loved and became the first Black player to compete in the NCAA championships, play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, and the first to play against white professionals at the World Pro Championships.
After becoming one of the most prominent players in the American Tennis Association, (an African-American tennis league parallel) he inspired the future generations of Black players.
“My only dream in tennis was to become good enough to beat Bob Ryland,” Ashe said in an interview with Ryland's wife Nancy.
Ryland would coach Ashe, Serena and Venus and a handful of celebrities, including Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.
Just last month Ryland became the oldest of New York City’s 13,775 tennis court permit holders. It seemed nothing could stop him from getting out on the courts. On Saturdays, Ryland would volunteer his time to work with students at Harlem’s Frederick Johnson Playground. During the week, he would often tune into the Tennis Channel or watch local players hit in Central Park.
Happy 100th birthday to Coach Robert Ryland, who became the first African American professional tennis player in the United States in 1959. Not only a talented player, Coach Ryland also taught Arthur Ashe, @venuswilliams and @serenawilliams, and Leslie Allen (@championshipservice). Stay happy and healthy, and keep going for it! #BobRyland #HistoryMatters #tennishistory
Ryland's spirit will carry on through all of the people that were lucky enough to have met him.