Robert Ryland, a native of Chicago, Illinois, passed away on Sunday, August 2 at the age of 100. As you may recall, he was recently inducted into the USTA/Midwest Section Hall of Fame on January 31, 2019. In addition to being inducted into the USTA/Midwest Hall of Fame, he is currently part of the Wayne State University Athletic Hall of Fame, Black Tennis Hall of Fame, and the USTA/Eastern Section Hall of Fame.
Robert began playing tennis at the age of nine through the encouragement of his father and Mrs. C.O. Seames, one of the first nationally-known black tennis coaches, from the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club. Robert went on to win the Illinois State High School Championship in 1939, beating Jimmy Evert along the way. He also won the ATA Boys’ 18 and under singles championship in 1939.
Following his high school career, Robert received scholarship offers to play at Xavier University, Wayne State University, and Tennessee A & I. He played for Wayne State University for two years and became the first black man to play in the NCAA tournament, advancing to the semifinals in 1946. Robert then went on to play and later coach at Tennessee A & I and twice led the team to national championships. He also won the men’s singles championship in the Detroit Public Parks integrated tournament in 1946.
Robert won several other singles titles, including the ATA Men’s Singles Championship in 1955 and 1956. He became an admired part of the black tennis community. A 14-year-old Arthur Ashe even said his only dream was “to be good enough to beat Bob Ryland”. His success continued, and in 1959, he broke through the barriers of race and class to become the first professional African American player. Robert played his first match as a professional in Cleveland.
The Chicago native saw success in both the ATA and integrated amateur tournaments around the country, which made him one of the best-known black players in the United States.
Later in life, Robert 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, along with coaching at Mid-Town Tennis Club in New York City from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. Robert also coached Venus and Serena Williams when they were juniors, as well as teaching tennis to several celebrities, including Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand.
Nancy, Robert’s wife, said he would be happy with any contribution to junior tennis. Contributions can be made to the USTA/Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation on Robert’s behalf.