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Players' Costs May Be A Factor In Why Tennis Leads Golf In Diversity


Heading into the French Open this weekend, the sport's top-ranked woman is Serena Williams. Since Williams and her sister, Venus, entered pro tennis in the '90s, they are said to have inspired thousands of African-Americans to take up the sport. Golf is still trying to reach that level of diversity. Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team looks at what accounts for the difference.


KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: That's Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2012 doing what she does best, winning. Serena's game, her swagger and her rise with sister Venus from public courts in Compton, Calif., have made her a sports heroine. Paulette Mashaka teaches tennis to elementary students at Children of Promise Academy, a charter school in Inglewood, Calif. Mashaka remembers playing tennis in Houston more than 20 years ago and happening upon a visiting girl who was practicing on a nearby court.

PAULETTE MASHAKA: And there was Venus Williams, probably about 9 to 10 years old, just whipping up on this girl. And there was Serena leaning up against the fence watching her play. I said these girls are going to be champions.

BATES: Champions and evangelists for tennis. D.A. Abrams heads diversity efforts at the United States Tennis Association. Abrams says the USTA operates several programs for young people interested in the sport, including one co-founded by the late champion Arthur Ashe that's now in 500 cities. He says there are about a dozen rising African-American champions of both genders who have been encouraged by the Williams' presence.

D.A. ABRAMS: And I can tell you, if you asked any of them, they would tell you that not just Serena, but certainly Venus, also inspired them to play tennis.

BATES: So what about diversity in golf? Tiger Woods was heralded as the beginning of new diversity in that sport when he won the Masters in 1997.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Just a four-foot putt to break the record and become the youngest-ever champion.


BATES: There hasn't been a long line of black golf champions since Woods became prominent, but that doesn't mean he hasn't influenced interest in the sport.

JOE LOUIS BARROW: I think that the Tiger effect is making it cool.

BATES: That's Joe Louis Barrow, CEO of The First Tee. It's a program led by the Professional Golfers Association to teach life skills and golf to young people, often in struggling neighborhoods. The program's gotten permission from several cities to turn small, underdeveloped parcels of ground in three-, six- and nine-hole courses. Barrow firmly believes Woods's very public profile aided this effort.

BARROW: The city councils would not have given us that ground had it not been for Tiger.

BATES: There are still challenges to getting more African-Americans into golf. For one thing, it can be expensive, says Vante Williams, president at the Rolling Greens Golf Club in LA.

VANTE WILLIAMS: It's the bag; it's the clubs; it's the balls that you play with; it's the tees that you hit off of; it's the markers that you mark your ball with. Then you still have to show up and play golf at the course and pay them.

BATES: On this day, a group of Rolling Greens women are signing in to play a small tournament at the Lakes, a course just south of LA.

REGINA O'LEARY: Are there sand traps here? So you need a pitching wedge, sand wedge, putter.

BATES: That's Regina O'Leary. A former racquetball player, O'Leary switched to golf two years ago and finds she loves the game.

O'LEARY: Once in a while, you hit the ball just right, and it's magic. And you go, I want to do that again.

BATES: Both golf and tennis are hoping more African-Americans and other people of color will discover that magic for themselves to keep these sports alive, thriving and profitable for a long time to come. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.