Hispanic-American void in tennis troubling
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN, Miami Herald
NEW YORK -- As you sit on your sofa and watch Miami native Mary Joe Fernandez on the ESPN set during the U.S. Open this Labor Day weekend, ask yourself the following question: Why are there no Hispanic-Americans in professional tennis?
And when we say none, we mean none.
The American players' surnames are Williams, Roddick, Blake, Querrey, Isner, Oudin, even a Ram and a Levine. But no names that end in ``z,'' nobody who could converse with Rafael Nadal or Juan Martin del Potro in their native tongue.
What makes that question even more baffling is that tennis is very popular in Latin America. The U.S. Open field includes 10 players from Argentina, three from Chile, one from Colombia, two from Ecuador, one from Paraguay and one from Uruguay. There are plenty of Spanish-speaking role models to choose from.
Hispanics make up a large percentage of the fans who show up at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne every year. ``Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-Le-Le!'' chant the Chileans. And the stadium rocks every time an Argentine plays.
So, where are the Hispanic-American players?
The U.S. Tennis Association is doing a wonderful thing Saturday night. It is honoring the 60th anniversary of the late Pancho Gonzalez's back-to-back U.S. Championships with an on-court tribute that includes Hispanic dignitaries such as former tennis great Pancho Segura and actors Benjamin Bratt and Jimmy Smits.
Gonzalez, a Mexican-American who was self-taught, is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game. His career spanned four decades. He was the No. 1 player in the world in 1949, reached No. 6 in 1969, and in 1972, just shy of his 44th birthday, he became the oldest man to win a title when he won in Des Moines, Iowa.
``Pancho Gonzalez was a trailblazer, not only in tennis, but across the greater American cultural landscape,'' said Bratt. ``He was a role model for a generation of Hispanic-Americans, and this tribute will rightly call attention to his important and lasting legacy.''
USTA IS LACKING
The tribute will also call attention to the fact that the USTA is sorely lacking in Hispanic talent. Wouldn't it be nice if there were at least one current Hispanic-American player who could be part of the tribute? The Hispanic population in the United States is 46.9 million, making it the largest ethnic minority in this country. And not a single player represented on the WTA or ATP Tour.
``I wish I had the answer to that question,'' said Patrick McEnroe, the USTA director of player development and an ESPN analyst. ``We need to do a much better job of reaching out to Hispanic-Americans. Tennis is hugely popular in South America and Spain, Rafa [Nadal] is an international star, and yet, Spanish-speaking kids here are not choosing our sport.
``We should have huge numbers of Hispanic kids playing tennis in places like Miami, Southern California, New York and Chicago, and we don't. Those kids are playing soccer and other sports. My guess is it's an economic issue, and a cultural issue. We are doing much better with African-Americans and Asian-Americans. I see lots of those kids playing at our regional centers, but very few Hispanics.''
Fernandez, who is of Cuban and Spanish heritage, also lamented the lack of Hispanics.
``I thought during the [Gabriela] Sabatini era that a lot of Hispanic girls here would pick up the game, but it didn't happen,'' she said. ``I don't have the answer. I can tell you that the USTA is doing more grass-roots programs in Hispanic neighborhoods. I have done some in Miami and Cleveland, and that should help expose those kids to tennis.''
McEnroe's Player Development program hired Jose Higueras as its director of coaching, and also brought Hugo Armando and Andres Pedrosa in to coach at the Boca Raton training center.
FINDING THE TALENT
``We are just now really making an effort to reach out and infiltrate the Hispanic neighborhoods to get some of those kids in our talent pool,'' said Higueras. ``The public parks are there, so it's more a matter of getting coaches and motivation for those kids. The Latino spirit is great for tennis. There have been great Spanish-speaking players over the years, like Pancho Gonzalez, and somewhere out there, there are little kids in this country with talent and desire, but we haven't done a good job of finding them.''
Higueras said his goal is to introduce the sport to underprivileged kids, identify the ones who have great aptitude and desire, and immerse them into the USTA player development program. ``I hope within four or five years to see more diversity among our players in juniors and the pros,'' he said. ``And I believe we'll get there.''
He said there's an eighth-grade kid in Southern California making some noise. Won some national tournaments in the 12s. His name is Ernesto Escobedo. He's Mexican-American. It's a start. Pancho would be proud.