When Salif Kante graduated from Florida ASM University (FAMU) in 2013, he was at the top of his game as a tennis athlete. He came to FAMU from Georgia Perimeter College ranked as the No. 1 junior college tennis player in the nation, and only added to his awards and honors over the two years he played for the institution, including being named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013.
"He was a gentle giant," recalls Carl B. Goodman, FAMU's head coach of men's tennis, referring to Kante, a 6-foot-5 public relations major who excelled on the courts and in the classroom. "He was one of the most talented players and nicest people ever."
Today, Kante, a native of Senegal, is embarking on a career as a professional tennis player, hoping his performance will incite as much excitement as the late Arthur Ashe did in his professional career following his intercollegiate tennis career at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Just as Ashe helped change the intercollegiate and professional tennis world, Kante is part of a new generation of college students who have been steadily changing the character and face of intercollegiate tennis in America.
Today, international students make up nearly 50 percent of all American college varsity tennis players, according to unofficial estimates by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the national governing body for the sport of tennis. A majority of those students are Hispanic or European.
African-Americans make up between 10 to 20 percent of the remaining players, according to USTA estimates. They are as likely to be playing at a historically White college or university as they are at a HBCU as both groups of institutions scramble for the best talent they can find.
"I think if you have the ability, the opportunities are there," says Larry Strickland, Howard University's mens and women's tennis coach.
"I still bring in bright Black students," Strickland adds, referring to the increasingly tough competition for talent. However, he admits that "it's getting tough" as more top Black students are recruited by top schools, leaving other institutions with more open spots for international candidates.
"I just have to work harder," Strickland says. "It's forcing us to look at international students."
The day-after-day talent search comes after several years of college tennis programs, especially those for men, being shut down at some institutions. College tennis is also seeking to attract a new generation of young people to the sport.
"I believe tennis is growing," says Jean Desdunes, USTA senior director of diversity and inclusion. "[Although] probably not as fast as we would love to say, [tennis] is not going backward as some other sports are."
Though college tennis is a respected sport, it has never drawn the crowds and dollars of college football and basketball. It also lacks the media attention that football and basketball receive. It has enjoyed less sustained surges in popularity, especially among people of color, despite the star appeal of numerous tennis players over the decades, including Venus and Serena Williams.
Still, tennis has a niche in intercollegiate sports that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Reinventing the game
To alleviate these challenges, college tennis is methodically reinventing itself. To help boost the interest of youngsters, colleges and campus tennis clubs are working with the USTA, focusing on grassroots training and development of young talent with emphasis on quality of training over quantity. …