The first black man to play professional tennis was not Arthur Ashe, as many may think, but Harlem’s own Robert Ryland, who at the age of 99 is still giving kids advice on how to play the game.
As the oldest New Yorker to hold a tennis permit, Ryland began playing when he was 8 years old after receiving his first tennis racquet from his father, an avid tennis player and coach. He then went on to become the reigning black tennis champion at the age of 35 and then the first black pro tennis player at 38. He told 1010 WINS Anchor Larry Mullins that as a kid, “I fell in love with tennis and use to sleep with my racquet.”
His extraordinary talent made him a much sought after coach. He taught tennis to the Kennedys and Robert MacNamara at the St. Alban’s Country Club in Washington D.C., as well as to many celebrities, including Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennet, Bill Cosby, Dustin Hoffman, Mike Wallace and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
He has also coached some of the world top tennis players. Recalling his time working with Venus and Serena Williams, he told Mullins: “They were trained at a park that nobody used, and we trained from 6 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock at night, and that’s the way it was and that’s what makes you, by playing like that. Their daddy really pushed them to be the top players in the world.”
He mentored and coached Arthur Ashe and told Mullins that Ashe’s ability to listen and follow through on what he was told made him a great player. “He use to come to me, when he was going to different tournaments, and he would listen to every word you say and whatever you said, he would do it.”
Although his name is not recognized instantly, this living legend is not bitter but still has a lot of knowledge to pass on to the next generation. “I like to be out there teaching the kids, that’s what I do on Saturdays. They need it.”