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It’s a warm May afternoon in Norfolk. Eight girls are lined up on the baseline of the tennis courts at Huntersville Community Center.

Coaches are teaching them how to toss the bright ball straight up and smack a serve over the net.

The lesson isn’t unusual - standard fare for beginner tennis players. 

But what is a little different is who’s standing on that baseline.

All eight girls are Black, which, if you know tennis, isn’t the norm.

There are just three Black women in the top 100 female singles players ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association, as of May 2023.

Less than 5 percent of collegiate female tennis players in 2021 were Black.

Virginia Thornton played tennis at Maury High School. 

Her friend Kimberly Selden pulls up the Maury girls tennis team photo on her phone. Two rows of girls pose in front of a net - a dozen white faces in white sweaters and skirts. 

And there, on the end, is Thornton, the lone person of color in the picture.

“No one was necessarily mean to me or treated me any differently. It's just that in your culture you have different sayings, you have different style. So you feel like a, you know…” Thornton trails off.

“An outsider,” Selden finishes.

“An outsider. Yes,” Thornton confirms.

Thornton and Selden are the reason these girls are out here on this May afternoon.

Thornton learned tennis from her father at 10 years old and has played all her life. Selden on the other hand, was curious but never really felt like she could step out onto the court.

“There are courts in my neighborhood I drive by every single day, never saw any people of color or any black women. So I think that kind of created a barrier,” she said.

The pair were meeting about a different business venture when an offhand comment about one of Thornton’s Instagram posts sparked the concept of a tennis club specific for young Black women.

The idea was to give them a place to both learn the sport and be unapologetically themselves while doing it - to make it not so unusual to see Black faces on the court.

Thornton and Selden organized the nonprofit Black Girls Tennis Club in the spring of 2022, advertising a clinic for girls between 10 and 13. Word spread like wildfire on social media.

Interest was so high, they filled four clinics just from the initial set of applications.

Since then, they’ve partnered with colleges like Norfolk State and Hampton University. A year into the project, they’ve got a dozen more clinics planned all around Hampton Roads.

The first part of every 2-hour session is given over to mindful discussion of different topics specifically rooted in the participants’ Blackness.

“Anyone that doesn't have our hair can go play tennis, and they might have dinner plans after. It'llafter It'll take them 20 minutes to get ready. We can't do that,” Thornton said. 

The group not only celebrates what makes them different, it gives the girls new to the game practical advice on how to deal with some of these things.

“If we're going to be able to impact impressionable minds, then let's take advantage of this time, Selden said. “And so that was a big part of wanting to go beyond just tennis, because we know for us as founders, we have struggled, you know, like we have to have our own mindful moments. We are trying to figure it out so we know everybody else is too.”

Photo by Ryan Murphy 

The participants of the Black Girls Tennis Club run sprints to close out this practice.

Black Girls Tennis Club is part of a growing wave of efforts to get more people of color onto the court.

Despite still-low visibility at the upper echelons of the sport, considerable strides are being made in bringing in minority players, according to figures from the U.S. Tennis Association. 

USTA says Black participation in the sport increased by more than 46% between 2020 and 2022

In part, executives said that was because of efforts during the pandemic to keep courts open and available to people during the pandemic. With just two competitors playing at opposite ends of the court, it’s a sport that’s ideal for social distancing.

But Thornton notes that there’s still a perception that tennis is only for a certain type of person - a perception they even heard from that first group of girls.

“One of them said, ‘Well, I didn't want to do it because I thought it was going to be whitewashed.’ We're called Black Girls Tennis Club, so just for her to say that because it's tennis, that says something,” she said.

“We're just here to change that narrative of what tennis is and what tennis can or should or will look like.”

And now, even with the program expanding rapidly, Thornton and Selden are branching out even further.

Black Girls Tennis Club is now working with a team from Microsoft and another tech company to develop an artificial-intelligence powered tennis tool. 

They said it started as a tutorial that would give you live feedback on your stroke, but discussions have evolved beyond that into other avenues, including expanding representation in these kinds of tools - like the ability to use an avatar that looks like you, rather than a default.

Selden said entrée into a game like this can create a domino effect that could change lives.

“There's a lot of country club-level sports that we don't necessarily have access to. So it's more than tennis. This is their entry point to livelihood or maybe a future career or a scholarship or how they provide for their families,” she said.

Each clinic includes ten girls, most of whom are stepping onto a tennis court for the very first time. Over the course of seven weekly sessions, they learn the basics of backhands and foot faults, serves and sets.

Many are inspired to take their game further, like trying out for their school team.

But for a lot of the girls running sprints between the net and the baseline, it’s not so much about the sport.

Twelve-year-old Alvia White was part of that first clinic. She said she had never played tennis and had no idea what it was about. Her mom signed her up for the lessons.

But she liked it enough to try out for the team at Blair Middle School. She didn’t make it, but she’s back for another clinic, and not just to practice her serve.

“I like hanging out with the people that come to Black Girls Tennis Club,” she said.