AFTER ACHIEVING A CENTURY OF LIFE, AND A LIFE FILLED WITH ACHIEVEMENTS, THE FIRST BLACK TENNIS PROFESSIONAL IN THE UNITED STATES HAS DIED. BLACK TENNIS HALL OF FAME MOURNS THE LOSS, AND CELEBRATES THE LIFE OF HALL OF FAMER ROBERT RYLAND JUNE 16, 1920 - AUGUST 2, 2020



In 1959, Ryland broke through barriers of race and class by becoming the first African American to become a tennis professional. His success in both American Tennis Association (ATA) and integrated amateur tournaments around the country made him one of the best known Black players in the US. His fame led sports promoter Jack Marsh to ask Ryland to make history by joining his professional tennis circuit which included legendary tennis players Pancho Gonzalez (who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) in 1968), Lew Hoad (ITHF Inductee in 1990) and other top pro players. Ryland accepted, and another barrier of race and class was broken when he played his first pro match in Cleveland in 1959. Ryland started playing tennis at age nine. He was taught by his father and the iconic Mrs. C.O. “Mother” Seames (one of the first nationally known black tennis coaches) of the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club in Chicago, Illinois. Ryland had a talent for the sport and quickly rose to stardom by winning the Illinois State High School Championship in 1939, beating Jimmy Evert (Chris Evert’s father) on the way to the title. In addition, in 1939, he won the ATA Boys 18 and under Singles Championship. In 1944, he played in a historic exhibition tennis match at the Cosmopolitan Club with legendary player Alice Marble (1964 ITHF Inductee) against Dr. Reginald Weir and Mary Hardwick. Ryland and Marble won the match 10-8. In 1946, he won the Men’s Singles Championship in the Detroit Public Parks integrated tournament. In 1947, he lost to the number one ranked U.S. player Ham Richardson 4-6, 5-7 in the Pacific Southwest Championship. In 1952, he won the integrated Los Angeles Industrial City Championships. In 1955 and 1956 he won the ATA Men’s Singles Championship in addition to being a finalist four other times.


Playing for Wayne State University, Ryland was the first Black man to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, advancing to the quarterfinals in 1946. Ryland was so admired in the Black tennis community that a 14-year-old Arthur Ashe said his only dream was “to be good enough to beat Bob Ryland.” In 1955, Ryland received a nomination by the ATA to play in the USLTA Nationals at Forest Hills. At the age of 35, with no experience on grass, he lost in straight sets in the first round. Clearly, Ryland might have done well in the US Nationals if he had been allowed to play it in the prime of his tennis career. In the 1960’s, he worked briefly at the St. Albans Tennis Club in Washington, DC where he gave tennis lessons to some of Washington’s elite. He later coached Venus and Serena Williams when they were juniors, and touring pros Harold Solomon and Leslie Allen. In addition, he taught tennis to many celebrities including Bill Cosby, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand and Tony Bennett.

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