Who said a black man could not play tennis? A Q&A with Jackson State alum Ryan Swanier

Lori Swanier, Ryan’s mom, broke the tennis barrier at Jackson State University. As for Swanier, a 2017 graduate of JSU and one of the very few black male tennis players, he wanted to follow in her footsteps.

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Moments before Ryan Swanier would take the court for his singles and doubles tennis matches on the Jackson State University men’s tennis team, he would remember this Bible verse:

Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

For Swanier, this verse not only fueled him to be great, but it reminded him of two things.

First, he was a male tennis player. Secondly, he was an African American male playing tennis, a sport that is devoid of diversity.

The latest Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings, which list the Top 100 male and Top 100 female tennis players, show a very small percentage of tennis players of color.

Currently, the two most notable players of color ranked in top 100 are Donald Young, 58, and Frances Tiafoe, 67. Both Young and Tiafoe competed in the 131st Wimbledon Championships before being defeated in the second round of singles action and the first round of doubles matchups.

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On the women’s side, however, the margin of color is better but not by much.

Over the years, Venus and Serena Williams have dominated the tennis landscape with others like Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend and the teenage sisters Tornado and Hurricane Black carving their paths in the shadows of the Williams’ sisters.

Staggering numbers for colored tennis players, and an even smaller percentage for male tennis players of color, served as part of Swanier’s motivation to pursue his childhood dream to play tennis. The other factor that drove him to play a sport that often made him feel like an “outsider” was the dedication and tenacity that his mother played with as tennis player at JSU.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Swanier talked to me about his tennis experience at an historically black college and university (HBCU), how he began playing tennis and why tennis needs more African American players.

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What is it about tennis that you love so much?

I love the use of the mind in tennis. You have to think so fast on what you are going to do with the next ball in a rally. It’s instant and very challenging! Tennis runs in my blood.

When you step out on the tennis court, what are you thinking, from the start of a match to the end of a match?

I am thinking about my opponents’ weaknesses throughout the whole match. I am thinking about how I can get to their weaknesses and break down their strengths. If you can effectively do this, you can beat your opponent.

When did you first start playing tennis? What was it like?

I first started playing tennis when I was eight years old. Both of my parents played. Well, really, my whole family. My mom, Lori Swanier, is in the JSU Tennis Hall of Fame. She was the first woman to play tennis at JSU. She played on the men’s team at JSU. One day, as a child, I went to one of my mom’s tennis matches at Battlefield Tennis Center in Jackson. I thought I could do what she did. So, I went inside and got a racket from Big Dog and started hitting the ball on the wall. That is where it all started for me. From that moment, I was so intrigued that I started taking lessons. That began the evolution of the player I am today.

What was it like playing tennis as a black man, especially looking around at your other counterparts playing with you or on opposing teams?

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Growing up playing tennis, as a black kid, I was always the outsider. I was one of not many black kids playing tennis and it hasn’t changed as I have gotten older. I always knew I had something extra on my shoulders because I am black. At Jackson State, I was not the only black player on my college team but I was the only American. Thus, I felt that I had to work extra hard to get to where I needed to be on my game.

Why would you say that a lot of black athletes choose not to play tennis as opposed to other sports like football, basketball and baseball?

Black people might say that tennis is a girl sport or a white man’s sport, and they think this because that is what they see on television. They see black people playing basketball and football, so, what they see is what they think. A lot of black people are afraid to get out and do something different but it’s nothing wrong with being different. The different people are usually the great ones.

You played tennis at Jim Hill High School. Talk a little bit about this experience.

Playing tennis at Jim Hill was a great experience. I learned a lot from my high school coach, Richard Wilson. He was a great coach. We won a city championship, and he helped me to compete in the state championships three years.

Who was your tennis coach at Jackson State? How was she beneficial to your growth as an athlete?

My tennis coach was Lois Alexis. She was very beneficial to my game by being patient, working with me and helping us as a team to win a SWAC championship.

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What’s your top tennis moment in your life? Why is this moment so important?

My top tennis moment was winning a SWAC championship. It is one of my greatest accomplishments. It’s what I strived for each year in college, and we finally won a championship during my junior year.

How did it feel to win the 2016 Men’s Tennis Championship? After winning the championship, what did you do?

It felt great for me and for my teammates to have overcome everything that season. We had a little fun after we won the championship. When we got back to Jackson, however, we started preparing for Nationals immediately.

What did tennis teach you about yourself and life in general?

I learned to be patient and how to wait for that big moment. This is a key aspect in tennis and in life.

What will you remember the most about being one of few black male tennis players?

I’ll always remember the extra fight I had to put forth throughout my tennis career and how it has built me as a player and a person.

What advice would you give young black males interested in playing tennis?

Go for it and give it everything you have because there is no such thing as a white sport or black sport or anything like that.

What will you miss the most about your experience? How do you plan to pay it forward to young black tennis athletes?

I will miss my teammates the most because of brotherhood we had. It was not bond that you could find just anywhere. I will miss fighting with them on the court each match. I plan to coach tennis and encourage the black community to play tennis. We need more black tennis athletes.

Currently, Swanier lives in Denver, Colorado interning with the Bureau of Land Management. While his college tennis days are over, Swanier’s love for the game will never diminish as he continues to make an impact for the game he loves.

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