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Bob Ryland: The first black professional tennis player

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Bob Ryland
Bob Ryland: The first black professional tennis player. Photo/
  • Bob Ryland was the first black professional tennis player. 
  • He is also one of the first black male tennis players to compete in the NCAA Championships. 
  • Bob is a member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame, the Wayne State University Athletic Hall of Fame and the USTA Midwest Hall of Fame.  

Just like any other sport, tennis has had its own share of great black players. But who was the first black professional tennis player?

Tennis’ black players like Serena Williams, Yannick Noah, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Venus Williams have their names written in history due to their achievements on the court.

But as we celebrate them, we also have to recognize Bob Ryland, the man who broke race barrier in tennis. Bob is in the history books as the first black professional tennis player.

He is also one of the first black male tennis players to compete in the NCAA Championships. Bob played and coached tennis for more than 60 years.

During his playing days, racial prejudice was a common practise. He would have been up there with great tennis players of his time like Bobby Riggs, Budge and Gonzalez had he not been born black.

Some of the big names in tennis he has coached include Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Leslie Allen, Harold Solomon and Renee Blount.

Even before his death, Bob Ryland was still involved in tennis. At the age of 99, he was the oldest tennis permit holder, as per the Wall Street Journey. Bob was still coaching young kids how to play tennis in 2019.

Bob Ryland

Bob Ryland. Photo/ Los Angeles Times.

Due top his significant contribution to the sport, Bob was inducted into the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame in 2002. He is also a member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, the Wayne State University Athletic Hall of Fame and the USTA Midwest Hall of Fame.

Early Life 

Bob Ryland was born on June 16, 1920 in Chicago, Illinois to an African-American mother and an Irish-Indian father.

Bob had a twin brother who died alongside his mother as a result of pneumonia when he was a baby. His father sent him to live with his grandmother in Mobile, Alabama after the death of his mother.

Bob helped his grandfather pick cotton until he turned 10, after which he returned to live with his father in Chicago. He attended Tilden Tech High School, where he played tennis.

During Bob’s time at high school, he won the Illinois State and two junior American Tennis Association (ATA) singles titles. After high school, the American international received a scholarship to study at a historically black college, Xavier University.

Career

Bob Ryland began his tennis career at Xavier University in New Orleans. After completing his studies at the university, he joined the U.S. Army where he served between 1941 and 1945.

Ryland received an honorable discharge from the army, after which he secured a tennis scholarship to Wayne State University.

During his time at Wayne State, Bob participated in the NCAA championships, reaching the semifinals. He was one of the first black players to compete at the tournament.

After leaving Wayne State University, Bob moved to California in 1947 where he played tennis with Gonzalez during the day and worked in the post office at night.

Bob broke another color barrier at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, when competing at the Pacific State Southwest Championships. He lost to Ham Richardson 6-4 7-5.

Tennessee A&I offered Bob a scholarship in 1954, which he accepted. He was a player-coach of the university and led them to winning the small college national championship twice.

Bob left Tennessee A&I with his bachelor’s degree and travelled back east where he became the physical education director of the YMCA in Montclair.

The tennis legend would later move to New York after opting to teach tennis. Bob Ryland made history in 1958 when he became the first black professional tennis player. He competed at the World Pro Championships in Cleveland and was paid $300.

Bob continued to coach tennis player in Washington D.C. until 1963 when he moved to New York. He spent 27 years coaching professionals and also teaching celebrities how to play tennis at the Mid-Town Tennis Club.

Bob Ryland, the first black professional tennis player, died on August 2, 2020 in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Bob Ryland

Bob Ryland. Photo/ Medium.

Abraham Odhiambo is an avid sports fan who loves to write about football, boxing and wrestling. He's a big supporter of Manchester United. He's pursuing a bachelor's degree in Communication and Media at Egerton University.

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