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Bob Ryland (1920–2020), first Black professional tennis player

by Linnea Crowther

Bob Ryland was a professional tennis player who was the first Black player to compete professionally.

(Photo courtesy of Burroughs Lamar)

A pro and a teacher

A U.S. Army veteran of World War II, Ryland went on to play tennis at Detroit’s Wayne University after the war on a tennis scholarship, becoming one of the first Black players to compete in NCAA championships. After some breaks in his education, Ryland graduated from Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College with a degree in physical education in 1955, just a year before Althea Gibson (1927 – 2003) became the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam title in the famed circuit of amateur competitions. Ryland was teaching tennis in New York in 1959 when promoter Jack Marsh asked him to play in the World Pro Championships in Cleveland. Paid $300, Ryland officially became the first Black pro at that tournament.

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In later years, Ryland concentrated more on teaching than on competing. His students excelled and many of the people he coached went on to legendary status, including Arthur Ashe (1943 – 1993), Harold Solomon, and Venus and Serena Williams. Ryland also taught tennis to celebrities including Eartha Kitt (1927 – 2008), Barbra Streisand, and Tony Bennett. In 2012, Ryland was honored by the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Notable quote

“Looking back over the years, I’ll always wonder if I could have made it big, with the right backing, like Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe.” —from a 1964 interview with the New York Times

Tributes to Bob Ryland

Full obituary: The New York Times

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