How Bruce Foxworth changed the rules of the game

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How Bruce Foxworth changed the rules of the game


His tennis game was one of those silky, strategic games: he pushed his opponents into the corner of the court, pushed them to the line, and then ended them with an elegant tactical blow that was out of reach out of reach. Bruce Foxworth (1956-2021) was a cat player, cool and easy-going, something of an anomaly in a game of shattering forehand and power serves. He never made it to the top ranks of professionals, but he held his own there and supported himself with tournament wins for a decade, performing in the main draw at Wimbledon, the US Open and the French Open.

Perhaps the subject of Foxworth’s life was an anomaly. He was an African American boy from St. Louis who took up the game when professional black tennis players were relatively rare. His father was a boxer with the Golden Gloves, so Foxworth grew up playing sports. (The family living room was adorned with a photo of the elder Foxworth, Dukes, with Joe Louis.) He played tennis at the speed of light and was able to play his father when he was seven. He also inherited from his father the conviction that jumping rope is all a serious athlete needs. His exercise routine was simple: he ran and jumped, hard, every day. He was an outlier compared to the other professionals on the track who traveled with a regal deluge of coaches and nutritionists, as well as fitness advisors and physical therapists.

Foxworth’s family were Christian, but he began reading the Torah alone during high school (he glanced at the Old Testament during worship) and continued to do so with a group of students when he attended the Hampton Institute, a historically black school in Virginia, now known as Hampton University. He read the Torah every day throughout his life. His Defying Expectations faced the ultimate test in 1992. By this point, Foxworth had retired from the professional community and was teaching tennis to earn a living in Los Angeles. One night he overturned his old Datsun truck on a wet, winding canyon road and broke his neck, a terrible injury that almost guaranteed he wouldn’t walk. But in time he did. He could no longer slide across the square, but with the help of a scooter, sticks and gravel he was finally able to feed his students balls and over time built up the strength to stand for hours during class. It turned out that he was very good at verbal training. He was so good at describing what his students should be doing that it didn’t seem to matter that he couldn’t demonstrate it.

Foxworth had a loyal following at The Tennis Place, a pay-to-play facility in Los Angeles. He was famous for being supernaturally calm – a departure from the then popular type of coaching that yelled at a student in intimidated submission. “He didn’t moan a lot,” said one of his students, Melissa Nguyen. “He never screamed. There was no anger in him. It was deep. ”Several of his students on the tennis court happened to be members of the Los Angeles Tennis Club, an exclusive private institution in the elegant Hancock Park neighborhood. Founded in 1920, it has long been rumored that the LATC restricted membership to whites and non-Jews and enforced strict dress codes. (Perry T. Jones, who started organizing tournaments and programs at the club he ran, according to the Los Angeles Times, “as Ivan the Terrible ran Russia,” from the 1930s onwards) once closed a teenage Billie Jean from King from a group photo because she wore shorts rather than a tennis skirt.)

Foxworth would not have been likely for the club. But LATC members, who were taking classes with him across town, urged the club to hire him as director of its junior program. The program was known nationwide; Jones had coached players like Stan Smith, Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs, Dennis Ralston, and King. Foxworth’s wife Geri, whom he met at Tennis Place, remembered taking him through the LATC for the first time years ago. “I’m not going to try to describe how people looked at him,” she said. “I just can’t describe it. I had to shut up. But it didn’t ruffle Bruce’s feathers at all. He knew exactly who he was and was completely comfortable with it. ”In 2000, he took over the junior program and ran it until his recent death from prostate cancer.

He had initially said that if he had to cut his hair, which he wore in thick dreadlocks, he would not take the job at the LATC. However, he tucked it under a hat when he was at the club. “He even agreed to wear a LATC cap,” said Geri Foxworth. Over time, he didn’t find it necessary to wear a hat and his dreadlocks bloomed for the rest of his life.

Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to the people, places, and things we have lost. If you’d like to suggest a topic for an Afterword piece, write to us at afterword@newyorker.com.

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