The Great Black Hope

By Dan Markowitz

This long fallow period has seen the likes of Mala Vai Washington, James Blake, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Donald Young all try and fail to be the next Black Hope, but even with more male black players in the game than there was in Ashe and Noah’s eras, not one black male player has risen to the top and stayed there for very long.

Ashe didn’t try to compare his era with others, but he was aware of the tremendous challenge in front of black players in what was in his day–and still is mostly to this day–a lily-white sport. He told me in an article I wrote for the New York Times in 1991, “Charges of Racism Now A Tennis Problem,” “I don’t try to compare what happened to me with what happens to them,” Ashe said. “When I started there were legal barriers. I knew that the world wouldn’t do me any favors, that it didn’t like me, that it would barely tolerate me.”

The search for the next Great Black Hope has been on in America since Ashe quickly departed the sport abruptly at 36 in 1980 with heart problems. But not in America nor France has the next great black hope flourished. Instead he hails from Canada, a country which until the last ten years had very little tennis success or history. That youngster, 18-year-old, Felix Auger-Aliassime from Montreal, lost last night at Indian Wells to the fleet of foot, 23-year-old, 5-foot-7 Japanese, Yoshihito Nishioka, 7-6 in the third set, but as the highest ranked youngest player in the men’s game and at 6-foot-3 with a body much like Ashe’s, but more modern and muscular, Felix’s Grand Slam winning days appear to be approaching fast.

It is interesting to note that Aliassime or just plain Felix, as Ashe was called mostly just plain Arthur, did not pick as his idol Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, but instead, Tsonga, a player that he shares African roots with and also looks a good deal like. Like Tsonga, Felix is tall and wears his afro high like Tsonga has for most of his career, and while at least at 18, Felix doesn’t hit the ball as hard on his serve or forehand as the big Frenchman, he shares the same flashy game as his idol. Felix’s father came from Toga, Noah’s from Cameroon and Tsonga’s from the Congo. So while many thought the next Great Black Hope after Ashe would be American, on the contrary, two have come from France and the other now from Canada, all to African fathers who maybe were not aware or as concerned about the dearth of great black male players.

Women’s tennis has been dominated over the past two decades by the Williams sisters and Naomi Osaka, a half-Japanese, half-Haitian player, groomed in the United States, is looking like she’s going to carry on holding the torch high for black female players. She torched the American newcomer, Danielle Collins yesterday, and although Collins hits the ball as hard as Osaka, she doesn’t possess the athleticism of the two-time slam champion who’s a precocious 21-years-old. Interestingly enough, while everyone in the tennis world was looking for former US Open champ Sloane Stephens or US Open finalist, Madison Keys, to take up the mantle at the top of the women’s game from the Williams’s sisters, it’s been Osaka who has sped past both problematic Americans.

Now it’s a black Canadian and a black Japanese who are leading the way while Frenchmen and American men and women seem to be saying, “I could’ve been a contender” for being the next Great Black Hope.


  • George · March 12, 2019 at 8:09 am

    If you wrote the same article about the Great White Hope in the NBA, some would label you a racist:

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 12, 2019 at 8:57 am

    Tiafoe seems to have been forgotten already. For sure Felix looks like the much better prospect with the much better potential. I think Felix could be better than Djokovic, and soon too. He is better than Djokovic at the same age, ranked higher and beating better players than the 18 year old Djokovic did. Looking forward to seeing how good Felix will be, no limits to what he will do in pro tennis. Is Felix half white? Looks like he could be a 50-50 mix.

  • Dan Markowitz · March 12, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    George, I’ve written articles about the NBA and their Great White Hope(s). I wrote books with Walt Frazier and John Starks. Bill Bradley wrote the forward for The Game Within The Game and Bill was once deemed a Great White Hope. I don’t find it racist to say that a racial group that is under-represented in a particular spot has a beacon of hope that that means anyone who gets behind that player is being a racist.

    Felix and Tiafoe and maybe Mmoh if they do break through as Felix and Tiafoe have already done to a certain extent, they are the outliers. That’s not too controversial to say or write. How many black players on the ATP and/or the WTA are there? Without counting, I’d say maybe 20 total.

  • jg · March 12, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    crazy story about former Georgetown U tennis coach indicted (with 50 others) for giving out tennis scholarships for students whose parents paid a “fee” to a 3rd party who allegedly sent the money or some of it to the coach for the admissions slot, some of these students didn’t even play tennis. Apparently according to the indictment the coach (who is now at Rhode Island) pocketed 2.7 mil over many years.

  • Dan Markowitz · March 12, 2019 at 4:39 pm

    I didn’t even know Georgetown had a good tennis team. When I went to George Washington we used to go over and play on the G’town courts and they were nothing special and I don’t think back then in the 80’s they were a tennis powerhouse.

    Amazing that the admissions people didn’t check to see that when they gave the tennis coach license to bring in stellar tennis players quid pro quo who had below-Georgetown-level grades these kids than didn’t play on the Georgetown tennis team. College admissions can be a corrupt system, but tennis is an absolute meritocracy so if this tennis coach and his team kept losing I’d imagine someone would check on who he’s bringing in as recruits. But then again, maybe it’s only tennis and Georgetown might only care about their basketball team.

  • Hartt · March 12, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    Félix’s mother is white, she is Marie Auger, which is where the Auger part of his surname comes from. Félix was born in Quebec, and his native language is French, so that is something else he shares with Tsonga. Even though Félix speaks excellent English, his language is important to him, and he has talked about missing speaking French when he is on the road. although both his coaches are French-speaking, so that should help.

    Félix has other tennis idols as well. Monfils was another black, French-speaking idol when FAA was a kid. But we know he had a Rafa poster on the wall at home because Denis wanted it taken down when he was staying there and poor Shapo was going to face Nadal that same day. Félix shares an August 8 birthday with Federer, and when he was a kid his mother tried to get a signed Fed photo for a birthday present. FAA was thrilled when he finally got to meet Roger, and over the moon when he got to train with him.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 12, 2019 at 5:22 pm

    jg, someone just told me about top college players getting a lump sum at the end of their college careers. Anything is possible. Corruption is everywhere in sports. Conspiracies happen everywhere. Thank God for conspiracy theorists and exposers.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 12, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks Hartt, I wasn’t sure if Felix was half white. I wonder if that fact will be swept under the rug? Like Tiger Woods is portrayed as 100% black but he’s really only 25% black as his mom his full Thai and his dad was half black.

  • jg · March 12, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    You’re right Dan–not that good, they did get a runner up in the big east a few years ago, but its no UCLA or the like. They had an assistant coach a few years ago who was a professor, and he played in some of the adult tournaments, he was number 1 at Yale and was Lendl’s practice partner when he was in college and Lendl lived in Connecticut-He wrote a story in tennis magazine abut it and that Lendl’s dog bit him. I bet he could have beaten everyone on the team (maybe save for the number 1. I could see the school not paying attention–but not the athletic director. Apparently they did figure it out and terminated him a couple of years ago–I can’t see how URI hired him unless they were clueless. Apparently the coach is a big deal in Rhode Island tennis, I suspect he’s suspended now.

  • jg · March 12, 2019 at 5:43 pm

    you’re right Dan not that good, but I think they were runner up a few years ago in the big east. My friend who is an ITF umpire who does college matches says GW may have a better team (GW took over Mt Vernon College and they now have a nice tennis center), but neither are tennis powerhouses so that may explain why maybe they weren’t paying attention–but not understanding why the athletic director wouldn’t know. Apparently Georgetown did figure it out and they guy was terminated for admissions impropriety –then he got a job at URI (apparently he’s a well known tennis figure in rhode Island)

  • Hartt · March 12, 2019 at 6:00 pm

    Scoop, I think it is largely acknowledged that Félix is half-white. The ATP site had a big article on him at IW. His mother and sister are staying with him, and his mother cooked what sounded like a terrific dinner, including maple syrup. His parents are separated, so his father wasn’t there, but his mother and sister have been to all his IW matches. Félix has often talked about what a big role his mother plays, keeping him grounded, etc. She was a teacher, so she has stressed the importance of education to him.

    In Canada, the big historical and cultural divide has been French-English rather than race. That’s not to say there is no racism here, of course there is. But race does not play the same role in our consciousness that it does in the US.

  • jg · March 12, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Felix must know he’s big time, they list his residence as Monte Carlo already. Is he already thinking of taxes?

  • Hartt · March 12, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    FAA must have made some $ to be able to afford living there. 🙂

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 12, 2019 at 10:29 pm

    Felixs got a major Nike contract, but the parents made the deal and never told Felix what it’s worth, I was told by an insider. Keep his head on the game not the money. Very smart. Imagine he also has a big racquet deal too with Babolat.



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