Several prominent black male tennis players have enjoyed success during the Open Era, generally recognized as 1968 to now when professionals and amateurs began to compete against one another.
One’s legacy transcends sports. Others won Grand Slam events or reached major finals and played for their country.
Below is our list of the most influential black male tennis players. They are listed by the number of Grand Slam titles they won.
- Grand Slam Singles Titles: 3 (1968 U.S. Open, 1970 Australian Open, 1975 Wimbledon)
- Grand Slam Doubles Titles: 2 (1971 French Open, 1977 Australian Open)
Arthur Ashe was born in 1943 on the 10th of July. She was born in Richmond, Virginia, and was mostly raised by his father because his mother died at a young age. Slight of build, he was encouraged to excel in academics and any other sport than football. He chose tennis.
Ashe earned a scholarship to UCLA after becoming the first African American male tennis player to win the National Juniors tournament. In 1965, he won the NCAA men’s singles and doubles (with partner Ian Crookenden) titles to lead UCLA to the team championship.
As well as playing tennis for the Bruins, Ashe enrolled in the college’s ROTC program. He graduated with a business degree and joined the U.S. Army, where he worked for two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
In 1963, Ashe was the first black male tennis player to be selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team. The Davis Cup is an annual competition between each nation’s best players. He remained on the Davis Cup team for many years, winning the championship with his teammates in 1968, 1969, and 1970. He was chosen to serve as the U.S. Davis Cup captain from 1981 to 1985.
Ashe is the only person to win both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open championship in the same year (1968). He is also the only black male tennis player to win the famous Wimbledon tournament in England (1975).
But Arthur Ashe’s legacy outlives his substantial sports career. He was the first tennis play of African American origin to enter a tournament in South Africa when that country had institutional racist policies—but it was only after numerous attempts to do so. The South African government denied his request for a visa due to his black heritage. That discrimination led Ashe to work toward banning South African players from international tennis competitions.
After his retirement, Ashe suffered the first of two heart attacks when he was just 36 years old. Doctors discovered he had congenital heart disease and underwent two major heart surgeries. Ashe became the national spokesman for the American Heart Association.
However, it was later determined that during the second surgery Ashe was transfused with tainted blood, and he developed HIV-AIDS. In his final years, he started a foundation to raise awareness of the disease and money to fight it. The United Nations General Assembly invited Ashe to deliver a speech on World AIDS Day in 1992.
Sports Illustrated named Ashe Sportsman of the Year in 1992, only two months before his death from the disease. ESPN named their annual “Courage” award in his honor. And the United States Tennis Association named the largest tennis stadium in the world after him.
Arthur Ashe, the most famous and influential African American male tennis player, died on February 6, 1993.
- Grand Slam Singles Titles: 1 (1983 French Open)
- Grand Slam Doubles Titles: 1 (1984 French Open)
Yannick Noah was born in 1960 on the 18th of May, in the north of France. His father was from Cameroon and his mother was French. Yannick’s father moved the family to Cameroon to play football there. None other than Arthur Ashe discovered the young Yannick playing tennis in Cameroon. He was eventually sent to France’s tennis training center, where he excelled.
He became a professional black male tennis player at the age of 17. Yannick won his first tournament the following year.
By far his biggest success was winning the French Open singles title in 1983. In doing so, Yannick Noah became the first Frenchman to win his country’s open tournament on the red clay courts of Paris in 37 years. He is also the only black male tennis player to achieve this feat. France hailed Yannick Noah as a hero.
A year later, Yannick teamed with friend and countryman Henri Leconte to win the French Open doubles championship. Noah attained the world’s No. 1 doubles player ranking that year.
Noah also played on his country’s Davis Cup team for many years. He and his teammates won the championship in 1991, upsetting the heavily favored American squad in the finals. He led France to a second Davis Cup championship in 1996. Noah now serves as France’s Davis Cup captain and has for many years.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005.
In addition to his playing career, Yannick Noah became an international singing success with eight solo albums and sold-out concerts throughout Europe. He continues to perform today.
- Grand Slam Titles: 0
James Blake was a rising African American male tennis player in the early 2000s when he broke his neck in a freaky on-court accident. While practicing for a tournament in Rome in 2004, Blake slipped on the wet clay court and rammed into the net post. His seventh vertebra snapped. But his nerve endings were not damaged, and he recovered to play again.
Blake was born in 1979 on the 28th of December, in Yonkers, New York. His family moved to Connecticut when he was a teenager. Despite scoliosis, he picked up a racket and dedicated himself to the sport after listening to a speech by none other than Arthur Ashe. Blake attended Harvard for two years before turning professional.
James Blake won 10 professional singles titles and seven doubles championships during his professional career. He also helped Team USA win the 2007 Davis Cup. He made the quarterfinals of the 2005 and 2006 US Open and the 2008 Australian Open. He reached the semifinals of the 2009 Wimbledon doubles tournament. Blake advanced to No. 5 on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour.
In 2015, Blake was arrested near the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York City when a plainclothes officer thought he matched the description of a suspect in a credit card fraud case. He was later released and sued the city for police misconduct. He has since taken an activist stance against police brutality.
- Grand Slam Titles: 0
Mal Washington is one of the only two African American male tennis players to reach the finals of Wimbledon. The other is Arthur Ashe. Washington did so with a spectacular run in 1996, but he eventually lost to Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands in straight sets.
He won four ATP singles tournaments and rose to No. 11 in the rankings. But his career was cut short after a series of knee injuries.
In 2009, Mal Washington received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian award from the ATP for his work with underprivileged children in Jacksonville, Florida.
This list of the best black male tennis players includes an icon, a national hero, and two very good players who competed against the best players of all time.
They have left an indelible mark on their sport and society. And they have inspired a new generation of black male tennis players to pick up their rackets and reach for the top.