Representation in tennis serves as an indispensable cornerstone for Black girls. Witnessing themselves mirrored in the players who command the court, especially on grand stages, isn’t merely about seeing someone who looks like them. It’s about dismantling historically entrenched barriers in a sport that has often lacked diversity.

Virginia Thornton and Kimberly Seldon founded Black Girls Tennis Club. It represents more than just the establishment of another sports organization. BGTC signifies a bold move towards inclusivity and representation in the tennis world.

Photo Courtesy of Virginia Thornton

Black Girls in Tennis

When Black girls see champions like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and newest Grand Slam title winner, Coco Gauff, not just playing but dominating and reshaping the very ethos of the game, it’s an affirmation. It attests to their boundless potential, waiting to be harnessed. Such visibility stokes the flames of dreams, bolsters confidence, and challenges antiquated notions of who belongs in the sport.

Gauff isn’t the only Black girl currently dominating the court, others include Taylor Townsend, Sachia Vickery, Robin Montgomery, and Clervie Ngounoue. Their triumphs go beyond just tallying championships; they challenge and reshape the narrative in a historically non-diverse sport. Each victory, each Grand Slam, stands as a testament to their talent and resilience, but it also serves a greater purpose.

21Ninety spoke with Black Girls Tennis Club’s co-founder Virginia Thornton and BGTC participant Samara Jones about the organization, its origins, and representation on the court.

Interview With Virginia Thornton and Samara Jones

21Ninety: Tell us about yourself.

Virginia Thornton: First, I am a wife and mother to an intelligent 3-year-old boy named Nigel. Family is very important to me and comes before anything else! Second, I am Co-founder and Creative Director of Black Girls Tennis Club and Get Well Soon, a wellness studio in Norfolk, Virginia. I have always been very passionate about my community from a very early age. My grandmother, who I am named after, was given a humanitarian award for her community service work by the Clinton administration. So you know what type of time she was on! Tennis has been in my life for as long as I can remember. My dad taught my mom and siblings how to play tennis the same year Venus made it to her first US Open final in 1997. What started as a family activity soon became more of a sport when I started competing in high school. Now, it’s become my primary source of physical and mental activity.

21N: How did the Black Girls Tennis Club come about?

VT: Black Girls Tennis Club was not planned at all. Well, at least it wasn’t on our plans. Kimberly (Co-founder) and I were meeting to discuss our shared dream of wanting to own and design a hotel. She referenced an Instagram video I posted of me playing tennis on vacation and said she didn’t realize I REALLY played tennis. She’s wanted to play tennis in her adult life but never really went for it. People don’t realize tennis can be intimidating for many people, regardless of race or social class, and that’s where the conversation went. I had always been the only Black girl on the court most of my life, so when she said, “We should start a Black Girls Tennis Club,” I jumped at the idea. While the planning for a hotel was placed on hold, we’ve now started discussions around creating a swim and racquet club in our hometown.

21N: Black girls are often the minority on the tennis court. How does Black Girls Tennis Club aim to address this experience?

VT: We like to say we are “disrupting sports with C.A.R.E.” That stands for culture change, access, representation, and exposure. We are changing the experience by creating our own. We are very thoughtful with our programming, events, and activations. An example is our activation at Mighty Dream, Pharrell’s business conference that ended with a block party in Norfolk, Virginia. There weren’t any tennis courts in the area, so we created one in a parking lot, had a DJ play our music, provided rackets and coaches, and let people have a good time. Even with our free clinics for minors, we’ve had pedestrians and people driving stop just to ask, “Why are there so many Black girls on the court?” It doesn’t stop on the tennis court. We need representation in all areas of the sport: movies, commercials, commentators, umpires, etc. There are other avenues if the goal isn’t to be a professional tennis player.

21N: How has the club expanded since its inception?

VT: During our first year, we served about 40 girls. This year, we are on track to serve more than four times the number of participants. To be honest, as founders, Kimberly and I had to check ourselves because expansion to other states was on the list of things to do very early. We realized that while we want to be everywhere, we need to sow seeds at home first, build a team and then expand. We are doing just that, so be on the lookout for BGTC in your city or state in the future!

21N: What initiatives are you currently working on to promote tennis among Black women and girls?

VT: Our focus has been programming for Black girls, but we are now adding events for adults! We recently launched Cardio Tennis, a high-energy group workout on the tennis court. What I love about it is whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player, you can still participate. Next on our radar is Self-Love Tennis Club, a one-day event for Black women to enjoy a tennis clinic with music, vendors and networking. Each session starts with a mindfulness activity, such as a sound bath or meditation. We want to promote the idea of having hobbies as Black women. Maybe it’s tennis, maybe not. We are just using tennis as a catalyst to do just that! Self-Love Tennis Club and Cardio Tennis will be offered in other states as early as this fall, so be on the lookout! 

21N: What motivated you to join the Black Girls Tennis Club? How has your experience with the club influenced your perspective on tennis?

Samara Jones: I wanted to see other people like me do a sport I enjoy. I would say my experience with the club has made me enjoy tennis a lot more. They make the game an enjoyable thing and I’ve also built self confidence in my playing style.

21N: What would you say to other Black girls and women who might be considering taking up tennis or joining the club?

SJ: I say they should go for it whether they’re a beginner or not. The coaches and the people are wonderful, plus you’ll make a lot of friends and boost your personal self esteem.

You can learn more about Black Girls Tennis Club at their official website.

This article has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.