On Nov. 13, tennis champion Ann Koger was inducted into the United States Tennis Association’s Middle States Hall of Fame, making her just the third Black and first woman to receive this honor. But her success in the sport hasn’t been easy, as her road to achievement has been strongly challenged by adversity.
“She’s been a high achiever all her life,” Koger’s sister, Patricia, told the AFRO during a recent interview. “She really has been a female athlete ahead of her time.”
Reared in West Baltimore, Koger was first introduced to tennis by her mother, who belonged to the Baltimore Tennis Club. As a child, Koger and her siblings initially accompanied their mother to her tournaments, but were later forced to stay home when the trips became too expensive.
“She would come back from the tournaments on Sunday and I would always say, ‘I want to go,’” Ann Koger told the AFRO. “So said, ‘You can only go to the tournaments if you’re going to play tennis. I told her I wanted to play, and I started in 1961.”
After taking lessons, she competed in her first tournament at the American Tennis Association’s National Conference at Hampton University. Though her career in the sport was on the rise, it wouldn’t be long before she experienced her first encounter with racism.
“I was playing pretty good for a first year person, but as I played this girl, I realized she was cheating me,” Koger said. “I wanted to have a referee but of course, nobody did anything.”
Still determined, Koger said she returned to face her opponent who called her the n-word and a host of other racial epithets.
“I came off the court and I was crying,” Koger said. “So that’s when I found out what ‘fair’ was about and what race was about.”
But she didn’t let that experience deter her passion. In 1968, she enrolled at then-Morgan State College, where she had to participate on the men’s team. At Morgan, she became a four-year letter winner in four of the seven varsity sports she competed in and was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982.
Throughout her near half-century career in tennis, Koger has acquired a numerous other achievements, picking up many “first” titles along the way. In addition to becoming the first female to coach women’s tennis at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, (a position she’s held for 29 years), she also holds the title as first African-American female to officiate men’s basketball in Maryland.
Earlier this year, Koger was also inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame and received the Philadelphia Sports Legends Award.
Besides a handful of other Black tennis greats over time, a void in African-American players still remains in the sport. Many point to its staggering costs as the primary reason for blacks’ non participation. Koger believes that because of this reason, the USTA needs to “step it up.”
“In the culture of sports, you find segregation,” Koger said. “The two most visible sports that have seemed to overcome that are basketball and football. But the sports of tennis, swimming and golf have a long way to go. Tennis has a program for Black youths, but it’s just not getting kids from the grassroots level up to the division one and professional level fast enough. But they have a new coordinator in charge of developing players for this country, so we’ll see how that turns out.”