How to Open a Closed World

Levar Harper-Griffith’s Strategy: Step Onto a Tennis Court When You’re Three Days Old

But that's a long way away, and yet right around the corner. Harper-Griffith is young but hardly embryonic by tennis standards. His ranking is okay for now—Roddick, now 18th, was ranked No. 338 a year ago—but Harper-Griffith is quickly approaching the time to put up or shut up. His first-round match against Albert Costa is a good place to start.

For a guy who's never won a singles event at an ATP Tour-level match, Harper-Griffith sports a formidable résumé. He's practiced with Pete Sampras and Gustavo Kuerten. At the beginning of last year, then Davis Cup captain John McEnroe named him as practice partner for the team's trip to Zimbabwe, calling him a "model" and adding, "It's a Queens boy picking a Brooklyn boy. It's also a historic opportunity for an African American." For Harper-Griffith, who joined Johnny Mac in giving a clinic for local kids, the trip was a consciousness-raiser. "I read a lot of the press and I didn't know how to take it," he recalls. "I had fun going out into the square, and people would just mob me. It's like 'Can we have your shoes, can we have your jacket, can we have your hat?' It shows you what life's about—a lot of these kids don't have running water in their house."

And of course, Harper-Griffith earned one of only eight wild cards into the main draw of this year's U.S. Open, a free pass given to players whose rankings wouldn't get them into the tournament otherwise. A wild card is just that—a huge opportunity. Goran Ivanisevic got a wild card into Wimbledon this year and won. Why Harper-Griffith? He's young. He's promising. And he's also African American.

Harper-Griffith: born for the court
photo: Tara Engberg
Harper-Griffith: born for the court

Race is a hot-button issue in tennis. Richard Williams has become sort of an Al Sharpton in tennis whites, and he can afford to be, because he's arguably the game's biggest power broker. Only last week, William Washington, father of former pro MaliVai Washington, excoriated the USTA, claiming that the organization is racist in its distribution of wild cards. The stand is risk-free for William Washington—his youngest son, Mashiska, didn't get a wild card—because he has so little to lose. (It's worth noting that the USTA gave two of the eight wild cards to African Americans: Harper-Griffith and James Blake.)

Harper-Griffith is in a precarious position: in the USTA's good graces and, given his ranking, needing to stay there. So what's it like to be the sport's next black hope? "It's pressure," he says. " 'There hasn't been one since Arthur Ashe. Are you going to be the one?' Or you can look at it as an opportunity. Hey, if I do well, that's great. I can get my foot in the door and make my own name.

"Personally, I always try to downplay it," he continues, smiling the smile of a hometown boy almost literally born into the tennis establishment. "When I step out on the court, I'm a black man playing tennis. I know that. Everyone knows that. It's not something that needs to be shoved in everybody's face. First, I'm out there as a tennis player. Look at me for what I do on the court—forehand, backhand, serve, whatever—and then you can say, 'He just so happens to be black.' "

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