Photo by Bryan Haraway 2009 (36616)
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NEW YORK (Sept. 8, 2011)-A Caribbean-American is helping the United States Tennis Association (USTA) with its mission to introduce diverse audiences to the gentlefolks’ game, with the intention of changing the color of tennis.

Traditionally, the audiences as well the outfits have been white. Chris Michel, USTA director of diversity and inclusion, believes the African-American market is one of the largely untapped communities that ought to be engaged more in all areas of USTA business, and he hopes to strengthen the image of the USTA across all of those communities.

“Our mission is to grow and promote the sport of tennis in the United States. We can’t do that if we are not reaching out to diverse populations,” said Michel, whose father is from the officially French-speaking Creole nation of Haiti, to which Michel travels regularly and about whose development he is passionate.

In 2004, the USTA appointed its first chief diversity officer, and through the years has had a degree of success attracting African-American participation in the sport, piqued no doubt by the dominance of the Williams sisters in the women’s game.

But even that has come with its challenges, as tennis commentators and followers found it hard to come to grips with the sisters’ unconventional path to success. To this day they remain bemused by the Williams’ unorthodox approach to the game, even as they excel at the highest level of the sport.

Michel believes this kind of “commentator chatter” has changed, especially as Venus and Serena have proven to the world what great champions are made of.

The Haitian-American tennis administrator admits that the USTA is a better organization because of their success, but warns there’s no resting on their racquets; rather, there’s much work that needs to be done to change the “country club” perception that the sport is exclusive to whites.

“There has been progress, but we are not where we want to be,” admitted Michel, who said that diversity and inclusion are both necessary for the sport to thrive, grow and produce new American champions.

Michel is an expert on diversity and inclusion, with emphasis on supplier diversity, leveraging strategic partnerships and business development. Before joining the USTA, he served as vice president of supplier diversity at Merrill Lynch, where his innovative processes and procedures helped grow the firm’s purchases from diverse suppliers by 44 percent within the first year of implementation.

Before he moved to the corporate world, Michel spent 11 years in sales and marketing for minority-owned businesses, including the largest African-American-owned packaging company and the largest Latino-owned printing company in the country.

Michel believes the USTA’s “10 and Under Tennis” initiative, a new format for players ages 10 and under, will help make tennis more inclusive. “It will be more fun for kids of all backgrounds to get on the court,” he said.

The new format offers a quick and easy way for children to start playing tennis. A 2012 rule change for kids 10 and under requires tournament play on smaller courts, with lower-bouncing, slower-moving balls and lighter, shorter racquets. This allows more time to get to the ball and helps children develop optimal swing patterns. The racquets fit small hands and the courts are smaller and easier to cover, allowing for more fun and less frustration, according to the USTA. Full-sized courts can be reconfigured to accommodate up to six 36-foot courts, so instead of waiting in line, children can spend more of their time playing.