Robert Ryland, Who Broke a Tennis Barrier, Dies at 100


Robert Ryland, the first Black professional tennis player and for many years a well-regarded coach of younger players and celebrities, died on Aug. 2 at his stepson’s home in Provincetown, Mass. He was 100.

His wife, Nancy Ingersoll, said the cause was aspiration pneumonia. They had left their home in Manhattan in March because of the pandemic, she said, so that her son, Raymond Ingersoll, could help with his care.

During Mr. Ryland’s prime playing years, the major tennis tournaments were largely all-white affairs. The Grand Slam tournaments were amateur events; in 1956 Althea Gibson became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam with her victory at the French Open.

Mr. Ryland was a top player in the American Tennis Association, a Black organization, winning its men’s singles titles in 1955 and 1956. In 1959, in his late 30s, he was invited to join Jack March’s World Pro Championships, and was paid $300 for playing a tournament in Cleveland. That, according to the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, made him the first professional Black player.

Past his prime, he didn’t last long on the pro circuit — “I had only exposed myself to Black tennis, and we didn’t have that type of competition,” he told The Wall Street Journal last year — but he broke a formidable barrier.

“People stand on his shoulders,” Leslie Allen, a top women’s player in the 1970s and ’80s whom he coached, told The Journal, “and they don’t even know who he is.”

Robert Henry Ryland Jr. was born on June 16, 1920, in Chicago. His father was a postal worker. His mother, Augusta (Gibbs) Ryland, went into a tuberculosis hospital when Robert was young and died four years later; his twin brother had died as an infant.

His father was of Irish and Native American descent, and his mother was Black.

“When you’re part Black and part white you can deal better with prejudice,” Mr. Ryland once said. “You know what Black is and you know what white is. You know everybody’s the same.”

After his mother became ill, he went to live with his grandmother in Mobile, Ala., for several years. When he returned to Chicago, his father began teaching him tennis, and he took to it.

“I used to sleep with my racket,” he told the New York radio station WINS this year.

After graduating from Tilden Technical High School in Chicago, he won a scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana, but he left in 1941 to join the Army and served for four years. In 1946 he won a scholarship to Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, where he anchored the tennis team for two seasons and competed in N.C.A.A. tournaments.

He left college again in 1947 to play tennis on the West Coast. In 1954, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) lured him back to college as a player-coach. He earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education there in 1955.

Mr. Ryland won various local tennis titles in the cities where he lived, and he continued to play competitively into his 80s. He also became known as a tennis teacher, especially at the Midtown Tennis Club in New York, where he worked from 1963 to 1990. Arthur Ashe, Harold Solomon and Renee Blount were among those he tutored.

“You could almost identify Robert Ryland students based on how they struck the ball and how solid they were as players,” Ms. Allen said in a phone interview.

She said that Mr. Ryland, a friend of her mother’s, first gave her coaching when she was 11 and wasn’t quite ready to embrace the sport. She became more passionate years later, and while in college committed herself to becoming a pro; others were telling her she was already too old, she said, but Mr. Ryland knew better.

“It was his ability to see where an athlete was in their journey and what they needed to get to the next step” that made him a good coach, she said. “When I finally got the tennis bug, he had laid a good foundation for me to build on.”

Mr. Ryland also coached celebrities, either teaching them the game or trying to make them better at it.

“Stars can be hard to teach,” he told New York magazine in 1981. “They have problems coming down off their ego pedestals. Bill Cosby thought he knew how to do everything already and didn’t have to be taught. Barbra Streisand had a photographer around all the time. The key is to keep your mind quiet on the courts.”

Mr. Ryland’s previous marriages ended in divorce. Ms. Ingersoll said that she and Mr. Ryland had been together since 1978. His stepson also survives him.

Mr. Ryland was quick to provide tennis pointers even in his old age, and would do so during strolls past the courts in Central Park.

“He’d say, ‘Step in, catch the ball early,’” Ms. Ingersoll said in a phone interview. “He was always there with advice.”



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