The U.S. Open begins tomorrow, and the best players in the world will all be vying for grand slam glory, including Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Donald Young. Those are the only four African-Americans who rank in the top 100 players in this country. So why do African-Americans make up just 4 percent of the best tennis pros? That's a question of history, access and opportunity.

As NPR's Amy Held reports, some tennis enthusiasts are working to level the playing court.

AMY HELD, BYLINE: On a cicada-filled August morning, a group of kids hit the tennis courts for practice.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Out. Three-zero.

HELD: They're at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit gives free tennis lessons to kids while helping them with school and mentoring them. Willis Thomas is program director.

WILLIS THOMAS: We are really trying to improve the life of minority kids and poor kids in the city. Most of our program are in wards that have a lack of a lot of opportunities, especially in tennis.

HELD: And in an effort to reach more of these kids, the WTEF is moving to a bigger facility in DC, closer to their neighborhoods. Bob Davis has been involved in tennis since he was a child himself, playing junior doubles with Arthur Ashe. He's 68 now and president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame.

BOB DAVIS: Back in the days of my junior experience, you could enter a tournament, and once they got a look at you and found out that you were of color or black, they would just simply deny access to your entry. You just couldn't play.

HELD: And while tennis has come a long way since then, Davis says minorities are still left behind. Between training and tournaments, getting really good doesn't come cheap.

DAVIS: You're looking at 40 or 50 or 60 or $100,000 a year to be a competitive junior tennis player. How many minority families, where the average income is around $35,000, can afford that?

HELD: The United States Tennis Association is seeking to diversify the sport: giving out multicultural grants and introducing programs to under-served neighborhoods. Katrina Adams is the Vice President.

KATRINA ADAMS: We want to make tennis look like America when it comes to cultural backgrounds, but there's a big difference between being introduced to the sport, and then maintaining a certain level or growing to be the player that you become to be a professional.

HELD: Back at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Willis Thomas says the focus isn't so much on the kids winning trophies.

THOMAS: Our measure of success is they become good tax-paying citizens. We want them to go to college. We're not interested in them being champions. If one comes along, fine.

HELD: Charrisha Watkins learned about the WTEF on a field trip when she was 4. She's 20 now, and if it weren't for that trip, she may never have picked up a racket.

CHARRISHA WATKINS: There were no tennis courts in the area. All you had was basketball courts.

HELD: But she liked the game and stuck with it. It helped get her into a private high school and then on to Gettysburg College, where she's now studying organization and management.

If you hadn't gotten involved with WTEF and tennis, where do you think you would be?


WATKINS: I don't know. This was like my second home. It's like everything that I do kind of like ties to them somehow. So I don't know.

HELD: Summers, she comes back and coaches a new round of kids.

WATKINS: I push them as much as I was pushed when I was younger, along with making it fun because they're young so that they feel like they're working too hard, they'll lose interest.

HELD: It is fun for 13-year old Jasmine Everts(ph).

JASMINE EVERTS: I like tennis because you can take time and think about things in life while you're playing it and enjoy.

HELD: She is still thinking about whether she wants to play professionally, and she has a couple women to look up to.

EVERTS: Serena Williams and my grandma. She's really good. She's 90 years old, and she plays tennis five times a week here.

HELD: Amy Held, NPR News, Washington.

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