This week’s story is about a young girl from Detroit, Leonora King. Having brothers meant she grew up playing touch football. Her first experience with anything tennis related was simply a handheld paddle with the elastic band and rubber ball which she enjoyed immensely. It wasn’t until age 15 that Leonora picked up traditional tennis at Mumford High School.
Billie Jean King was Leonora’s tennis idol and she even went so far as to buy the same shoes as Billie Jean, to be just like her. As a high school freshman, Leonora had the good fortune to see Billie Jean play and this inspired her to learn the game of tennis herself. Turns out, she was a natural. With the help of fellow players at Mumford High School, such as Debra Hunter, and Karen Royal, who were already highly ranked juniors in Michigan as well as mentors at the Palmer Park tennis courts, Leonora honed her tennis skills. She played on Mumford's girls team and after graduating, she entered Western Michigan University where she was a walk-on for the women's team. At Western Michigan, she played #3 singles and #1 doubles. After graduation, Leonora went on to law school and continued down that path.
In 2010, the city of Detroit announced they would be closing Palmer Park as well as many other beloved area parks. Palmer Park, being well known for its tennis community and where Leonora had learned much of her tennis skills, knew something had to be done. She rallied the community together for a peaceful protest and thereafter, the People for Palmer Park was formed as a non-profit organization to "further the preservation, revitalization and viability of Palmer Park." Subsequently, in 2011, Leonora began the Palmer Park Tennis Academy, which is one of USTA/Midwest’s Community Tennis Associations (CTAs). Palmer Park Tennis Academy began with only 30 children and has now grown to serving over 200, some of whom even travel from between 45 minutes to over an hour away to attend the Academy. For Leonora, to be able to share her love of tennis with children, brings her much joy and is immensely rewarding.
In 2020, Palmer Park Tennis Academy was named National USTA CTA of the Year. Leonora says that being named CTA of the Year at a national level was a complete shock but a much-appreciated recognition of what she and her team have been working so hard to achieve over the years. And what a honor it was for the award to be presented to Leonora, by none other than Billie Jean King. She went on to say, “I am overwhelmed by it because we are basically kind of new and it is just fantastic, and I am honored, you have no idea…it’s been a mission of great love and something that has changed my life.”
From the former President and CEO of the United States Tennis Association—the first black woman and youngest person ever to hold the position—comes a behind-the-scenes look at the leadership skills involved in hosting the U.S. Open, the largest and most lucrative sports event in the world—lessons that can be applied across business and to any life challenge.
Robert “Bob” Ryland of New York, NY (formerly Chicago, Illinois), broke through barriers of race and class by becoming the first African American professional tennis player in 1959.
With encouragement from his father, Ryland began playing tennis at the age of nine with Mrs. C.O. Seames, one of the first nationally known Black tennis coaches, from the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club. He went on to win the Illinois State High School Championship in 1939, beating Jimmy Evert along the way and became an admired part of the Black tennis community, making a name for himself throughout the 1940s and 1950s. During this time, African American players were routinely barred from tennis tournaments. In 1955, he was awarded a wild card into the US Nationals at Forest Hills, an invitation to join promoter Jack Kramer’s World Pro Tour Championships, receiving $300 a match. For Ryland to be invited to play in this pro circuit was a breakthrough in so many ways.
“Rylands trailblazing past — sneaking into Whites-only hotels, where his college teammates were staying, coaching at clubs that didn’t allow Black players, teaching in a sport that didn’t always embrace you.”
Later in life, Ryland began sharing his love of the game through coaching. He worked briefly at the St. Albans Tennis Club in Washington, D.C. where he gave tennis lessons to some of Washington’s elite. He also coached at Mid-Town Tennis Club in New York City from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s. Ryland coached superstars Venus and Serena Williams when they were juniors, as well as several celebrities, including Dustin Hoffman, Bill Cosby and Barbara Streisand. He had even given lessons to Arthur Ashe, the first Black man to win the U.S. Open. According to the Wall Street Journal, a 14-year-old Arthur Ashe even said his only dream was “to be good enough to beat Bob Ryland”.
“He laid the groundwork for so many,” she said. “I’ve said this before, but people stand on his shoulders, and they don’t even know who he is.”
Ryland was inducted into the Wayne State University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991, USTA/Eastern Section Hall of Fame in 2002, Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009, USPTA/Eastern Division Hall of Fame in 2013 and USTA/Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation Hall of Fame in 2019. He was also presented with the USPTA/Eastern Division Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, and USTA/Eastern Section Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
This week we focus on Marion I. Rice, from Indianapolis, Indiana. His story has been passed down through the decades between friends and family and memorialized in Hall of Fame inductions and news articles. But to adequately understand his greatness, we must first understand the world he lived in.
Marion Rice grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow laws, enacted in the 1890’s when the US Supreme Court held it was perfectly legal and constitutional to build and operate racially separate facilities, as long as they were “equal.” Tennis was no exception.
In 1916 the American Tennis Association (ATA) was formed; it was the very first professional Black sports league. Later, Marion Rice founded Capitol City Tennis Club, an ATA member-club, and organized a competitive league schedule for Black tennis players throughout the Midwest and as far as the East Coast. And when the United States Lawn Tennis Association, the precursor to our current United States Tennis Association (USTA), banned African Americans from playing on the same courts as white athletes, the ATA gained even more momentum and continued to grow.
This is how Marion Rice made tennis history. Rather than give up the game he loved to play, he rose to the challenge to create his own tennis club; a club where others who looked like him could learn and play tennis. Marion Rice wasn’t just good at organizing tennis, he was great at playing tennis. He won local, state, regional and national tournaments, all the while breaking down color barriers. Marion Rice was the first African American to play on the courts of the Woodstock Tennis Club. And, while Rosa Parks made her protest known on a bus, Marion Rice played an integral part in protests at the all-white Broadmoor Country Club making history for African American tennis players. (see article).
Marion Rice was a true tennis trailblazer. He was President of the Capitol City Tennis Club, and later the President of MIDTAC, known also as the Midwestern Tennis Association. He became a respected tennis official, calling lines and umpiring tournaments including the US Clay Court Championship and on the global stage of the US Open. He became a certified tennis teaching pro. In order to give back to his community, he was again forced to create something new; he transformed Riverside Park into a first-class tennis academy. Here he taught countless kids and adults his unique tennis style. Fortunately, his impact on the city of Indianapolis is permanent. On February 25, 2004 he was inducted to the Indiana high School Hall of Fame. Then, on June 8th, 2019, the tennis courts at Riverside Park were renamed the Marion I. Rice Tennis Courts.
Richard Bradley can only be described as a positive force to be reckoned with. He was known for bringing change across Chicagoland when there was only segregation and the indoctrinated belief that some people are less equal than others. Richard was the key to making things happen because everyone trusted him. He was a powerful judge of character and could easily weed out people who did not deliver.
At the local level, Bradley was very active with the Chicago District Tennis Association (CDTA), serving in volunteer and leadership roles for approximately 20 years. His close friend, Tom Patterson shared that without Richard, the evolution of tennis and the Black community would have stalled. During the early 1960’s Richard was a school administrator with the Chicago Public Schools system. Tom was the current President of CDTA and saw organizations like Love to Serve being established and wanted to start and evolution of change but needed help. He hired Joe White to begin outreach of tennis in the Black community, however, they needed to answer how to get more involved and the solution was to get Richard Bradley on board. It was about trust in the community, no fancy talk. When Richard walked into a room, he had a presence about him. With Richard’s backing and support they made things happen. Things like opening draws in Tournaments to be more inclusive. For the first time in history there were more opportunities for Blacks in the high performance area. These changes are what has opened the doors for players today.
Bradley’s work in Chicago was substantial as he played pivotal roles with the Stony Island Tennis Club, the Love to Serve Tennis Academy, and the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club (the oldest African American tennis organization in the country). At the Midwest/USTA level, Bradley volunteered for the USTA/Midwest Section for 13 years, serving as chairperson of the Section’s Junior Competition Committee and Multicultural Participation Committee. He later served on the USTA/Midwest Section Board of Directors for four years as well as a Delegate-At-Large on the Executive Committee. He was elected President of several organizations: the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club in the early 1980s, serving for several years, the American Tennis Association in 1994 serving six years, the Midwestern Tennis Association (MID-TAC) for several years, the Midwest Section of the American Tennis Association, for approximately eight years.
Bradley’s list of accolades includes the following: USTA/Midwest Section Stanley Malless Award in 2000; American Tennis Association President Award in 1999; Love to Serve Community Service Award in 2000; Chicago District Paul Dean Memorial Award as Volunteer of the Year in 1997; and the renaming of his alma mater, Rushville High School’s six court tennis facility, as the Richard Bradley Tennis Center in 1995 in his hometown of Rushville, Indiana, for his tennis accomplishments. Bradley was instrumental in renaming the tennis facility at the Chicago Park District’s Tuley Park as the Joseph Buckhalter Tennis Center in 1998. Another close friend, Julia Steele, had the honor of speaking on his behalf for his induction into the Chicago Tennis Hall of Fame in 2016.
Through his involvement with the Greater Chicago Community Tennis Association, Bradley became a mentor to former tennis players like Vi Clark and Katrina Adams during their junior careers. It is with Katrina’s support that the Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation (MTEF), charitable arm of the USTA/Midwest Section, established the Richard Bradley Memorial Scholarship.
If you would like to donate or contribute to the Richard Bradley Memorial Scholarship Click HERE