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Robert Ryland, first Black professional tennis player, dies at 100

Robert Ryland is honored at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he played before joining the Army during World War II
Robert Ryland is honored at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he played as a student before leaving to serve in the Army during World War II.
(Xavier University of Louisiana)

Robert Ryland, the first Black professional tennis player and later a coach to future stars such as Arthur Ashe Jr. and Serena and Venus Williams, has died at age 100.

Ryland died Aug. 2 at his stepson’s home in Provincetown, Mass., where he moved after leaving his home in New York City amid the growing pandemic crisis in March. His death was confirmed by Xavier University of Louisiana, where Ryland attended college.

Born in Chicago in 1920, Ryland began playing tennis at age 10 and won the Illinois state and junior American Tennis Assn. singles titles in 1939. He received a scholarship to play tennis at Xavier but departed after a year to serve in the Army during World War II.

After the war, he was awarded a scholarship by Wayne State University in Detroit and had to endure the racism that permeated everyday life, often eating apart from his teammates when restaurants wouldn’t serve him.

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Undeterred, Ryland became one of the first two Black players to compete in the NCAA national championships, reaching the quarterfinals in 1945 and the third round a year later.

After college, Ryland began teaching the game while playing in the American Tennis Assn., at the time the main circuit for Black players. He broke the racial barrier in men’s professional tennis in 1959, at age 39 becoming the first Black player on the World Pro Tour.

During his playing career Ryland taught tennis across the country and worked at the exclusive St. Albans Tennis Club in Washington, as well as the Midtown Tennis Club in New York. Among his pupils were many celebrities, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand among them.

Ryland’s influence inspired Ashe as he became the first Black man to win singles championships at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.

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Ashe, who died in 1993, said he had long dreamed just “to be good enough to beat Bob Ryland.”

At the time of his death, Ryland was the oldest person in New York City to hold a tennis permit.

Ryland is survived by his wife, Nancy, and a stepson, Raymond Ingersoll.


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