Larry's Blog: Pioneering player Robert Ryland taught some of tennis' greatest stars

I thought I was seeing a ghost! He didn’t look like a ghost. In fact, he looked pretty darn good, for a 99-year-old guy. I had heard about him. The late tennis star Arthur Ashe once said that his dream was to someday beat his mentor, Robert “Bob” Ryland. I didn’t know Ryland lived right up the street from us, here in Manhattan! And he looks great! Imagine…this is the guy who taught the legendary Arthur Ashe. He also had a hand in the careers of Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Harold Solomon and so many other tennis greats! But he’s a legend in his own: The guy is the very first African-American tennis pro (1959)….and not to mention the very first “colored” man to play in NCAA competition at the college level (circa 1945).

And he and his wife sashayed into our studios today like it was another walk in the park. Go figure. In fact, he spends most of his days (when he’s not lecturing at the Arthur Ashes or Billie Jean King tennis centers) coaching young aspiring tennis novices in local parks. He took us down memory lane too…talking about his days of growing up in Mobile, Alabama, and seeing lynchings on his way to school…and how his dad had to escape the South to avoid getting lynched himself! (Dad was white, mom was black, and they didn’t play that down south). So they fled to Chicago, and that’s where his dad taught him to play tennis. Ryland says he didn’t like it, but thought it would bring him closer to his father. He says dad bowed out…but in the meantime, he developed a love for the game...and the rest is, well...“Black History.”

Ryland is a tennis genius and still gets a wide grin every time he speaks about it.

I loved meeting Bob Ryland. One of my favorite interviews. He’s down to earth, he’s a gentleman and funny as heck! Funny thing, he told me once upon a time, he used to sleep with his tennis racquet. His wife (who joined us) says “not any more!”

Keep swinging old dude. You just picked up another nephew in me.