How to Open a Closed World

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

"He's on the second court, with the baseball cap turned backwards," Says the USTA media guy diplomatically, pointing out Levar Harper-Griffith to a local news crew. This is like describing Shaquille O'Neal as the guy in the Reeboks. Sure, the 19-year-old Brooklyn-born Harper-Griffith is wearing a black North Carolina baseball cap new-school style. He's also the only African American man on court at the United States Tennis Center.

And today Levar Harper-Griffith is hitting big and living large. On the eve of his first appearance in the main draw of the Open, the New York native is practicing with two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, the rhythmic thwock-thwock-thwock of well-struck tennis balls punctuated by Harper-Griffith's almost musical grunts: unnnaaaah . . . unnnahhh . . . unnnugggh. It's beautiful to watch as they exchange moonballs that sail 30 feet over the net, alight improbably at the baseline, and scoot away like super-rats on crank. And a good thing, too, because a news crew and two photographers are ignoring Bruguera and focusing squarely on the hometown guy's every move. An hour or so later, Harper-Griffith makes his first appearance of the year at Arthur Ashe Stadium—only a few minutes after a freshly waxed Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov are done warming up. He's hitting balls with the news reporter from WPIX. She's brought a bright pink racket that matches her shirt, and to hear her tell it, she's a tennis person. Harper-Griffith is feeding her balls gently, smiling diplomatically as she dumps them into the bottom of the net or sends them into low earth orbit. "Good one," he cheerleads.

"As much as I try to look at it as just another match, all the outside stuff comes into play," he says, with an easy smile. "It's a big opportunity." This sublime-to-the-ridiculous afternoon reflects Harper-Griffith's unusual niche in the tennis hierarchy. Turning 20 years old this week and ranked No. 297 in the world, Harper-Griffith is hot enough to have earned a wild card into the tournament's main draw and recruit a former Grand Slam winner as his practice partner. And he's got enough homeboy-makes-good interview requests that the USTA runs interference. But when the USTA guy runs off to put out another brushfire, Harper-Griffith can still get roped into this sort of silly video-op, playing tennis in a pair of Adidas shower shoes, one false step away from ending his U.S. Open before it begins. Levar Harper-Griffith has a great story, and perched on a couch in the player's lounge at the Tennis Center he's happy to tell it. "I was born on a Friday, 7:30 at night, and my mother brought me out here on Monday morning, when I was three days old," he recalls. "My mom's a tennis bum, and having a baby's not going to stop her from coming out to the U.S. Open." It's a perfect little creation myth, the kind of thing you wouldn't believe if it weren't backed up by a ticket stub and a birth certificate. When he's two years old, instead of paying a baby-sitter, his mother, Bernice, takes him to the Lincoln Terrace Tennis Club, letting him chase balls, and when he gets old enough, hit for a few minutes at the end of her hour.

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

Then there's the Brooklyn angle: bringing his own net because they kept getting stolen from the Verazzano courts. (Of course, he stashed the net in the trunk of the family car, and Mom and Dad picked up the tab.) Running the gauntlet, past the guys shooting hoops in the park shouting, "There goes Arthur Ashe." Harper-Griffith is quick to put this preadolescent taunting in perspective. "They'd start getting on me when I'd start practicing, and then I'd put the racket down and go play basketball," he says. "It was probably just an excuse to get me to come and play."

The truth is that Harper-Griffith was the product of a decidedly middle-class Fort Greene upbringing—Dad's retired air force—not the straight-outta-Compton story that Richard Williams is proud to tell about his daughters. "It was pretty normal. I went to private school," he says. "I wasn't trying to dodge a bunch of crackheads shooting it out in the middle of the street on my way to the tennis courts."

And Venus and Serena notwithstanding, it's got to be that way. Tennis is different from other sports. While hoops stars can play high school ball waiting to be discovered, tennis stars are part born and part made—private coaches, tennis academies, and international travel. Even Richard Williams essentially turned a crack-filled public court and a shopping cart full of balls into a makeshift tennis academy. And that's where the Brooklyn chapter of Harper-Griffith's story ends. "My parents were in New York for years," he says. "And to pack up and move to Florida just because I play tennis is a bit odd if you think about it." Next stop was Billy Stearns's Tennis Academy, where he hooked up with a number of the most promising young American players—Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish, James Blake, and his former doubles partner, Andy Roddick.

At 5-9, Harper-Griffith doesn't have the giant serve or the time-warp forehand of his pal Roddick. To succeed in the pros, according to his coach Steve Devries, he'll have to rely on heavy groundstrokes and good foot speed (which he's got) and patience and tactical savvy (which he still needs). If things fall right, he could play Agassi to Roddick's Sampras.

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.

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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