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AT LILY-WHITE WIMBLEDON, MCNEIL PROVES SHE BELONGS

by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — It must be a hell of a feeling to be a black player in a stadium filled with white fans and a white Princess and a white Countess wearing white gloves, with white line judges and white officials standing all around you.

But that was Lori McNeil’s view from Court One on Tuesday at Wimbledon. And it was her turn to serve. She had learned her tennis in a city park in Houston, a place where, in the summer, you wait for the cement to lose its heat before playing. A basketball game was usually going on the adjacent courts there, and a lot of raucous yelling, but now, here at Wimbledon, it was dead silent, and the No. 3 female player in the world, Hana Mandlikova, was across the net, and more than 6,000 faces looked on, and by my count only six were black — one being McNeil’s coach, John Wilkerson, and the others family friends.

Tennis is a great sport. It’s also lily white and always has been. You don’t think the country-club set that introduced it here back in the 17th century was anything less than the privileged classes, do you? Hah. Even Henry the VIII had a worker serve for him, so he wouldn’t have to sweat.

Name one black female tennis star. You say Althea Gibson. She retired in 1958.

“Do you hear her name often?” someone would ask Lori McNeil after her match.

“All the time,” she would sigh. Learning the hard way Lori McNeil is an enchanting 22- year-old woman with a lilting voice and a shy, if not self- conscious, disposition. That she is black is only secondary to her, but she and Houston friend Zina Garrison and Camille Benjamin are the only blacks among the sport’s top 60 women.

“Do you see yourself as an example?” she was asked afterward.

“Well, I don’t think I can forget that I’m a black player,” she said. “I mean, everybody can see it. But I’d rather just be known as a player.”

As McNeil fired serves across the net, Wilkerson, her coach, watched nervously. It was Wilkerson who gave McNeil her first racket in 1974, part of a free program he started in that city park, MacGregor Park, for minority kids.

Nowadays, tennis stars don’t come off the streets. They come from live-in schools in Florida, and many travel with their mothers and some have private masseuses. No money, no chance.

But Wilkerson was trying to change that. He was never a great player himself, but he liked kids and he got to the park early and stayed until the long summer evenings were over.

“It wasn’t the way most of the women here learned the game,” McNeil admitted. “There were about 20 of us, girls and guys. We played one another. The girls didn’t wear dresses. Mostly we wore shorts, or whatever we had.”

McNeil was fairly typical of the group. Her father, Charles McNeil, played for the San Diego Chargers in the mid-’60s. In those days, however, your free ride ended when you retired from your sport. So today, Charles drives a cab and his wife, Dorothy, does clerical work in a hospital.

They couldn’t afford to be here. Mrs. McNeil watched on TV at work. Mr. McNeil was driving. A newspaper called them at home Tuesday night. “We wanted to come over,” Mrs. McNeil said, “but working people got to work.” Mandlikova battles back Lori McNeil beat Hana Mandlikova in the first set. She played gutsy tennis, took the No. 3 player to a tie-breaker and won with a slicing drop shot across the net. Then she lost it completely. Fell in the next two sets, 6-0, 6-2.

Still it was a good show. A quarterfinal at Wimbledon — the furthest McNeil had gone here. Only Althea Gibson had gone further among black female players. Another step forward.

And another back. The city has replaced Wilkerson’s program with a watered-down version — “you have to pay for it now,” he said. So today there’s one fewer place for poor kids with no tennis dresses to learn a terrific game.

Tennis is always bemoaning the size of its audience. But the best sports are the ones enjoyed by everybody. There is no deliberate racism here. Just economic discrimination. In America, anyhow, tennis is mostly for pony-tailed private schoolers and southern California golden boys.

“Maybe other black kids will watch me,” McNeil said. “And think if I can, they can.”

She rubbed her arms, as if taking stock of herself. “I don’t know. When I’m out there I feel like I have a pretty big support group behind me. That pushes me. So I’ll keep trying.”

The numbers are against her. But they have been for a while. Tennis will be a lot better off when Lori McNeil takes home one of its titles. And when the next player gazing up at Wimbledon isn’t blinded by the white.

CUTLINE

Lori McNeil

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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