Levar Harper-Griffith

a writer for TennisGrandStand. Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Levar Harper-Griffith is an ATP-ranked touring professional and former U.S. Davis Cup Team practice partner. He was Andy Roddick’s junior doubles partner and is the co-founder of the Global Tennis Foundation

An Olympic Wild Card Case For Sunitha Rao

Hello again it’s Levar updating you on some of the ongoing initiatives for The Global Tennis Foundation. Most recently we have been supporting and promoting Sunitha Rao, who is currently the No. 2 ranked woman from India and is aspiring to play in the Beijing Olympics this August. She recently won a women’s 75k Challenger in doubles, and is looking to gain some momentum to be accepted in the draw at the Olympics.

Sunitha was born to Indian parents and raised in the United States (Jersey City, N.J and Bradenton, Fla.). She had a wonderful junior career and turned that into a consistent top 200 player in both singles and doubles. Global Tennis has been supporting her as she tries to achieve her goal of representing India in the Games. She first represented India in Fed Cup play in 2007 and has played eight ties for India posting a 5-6 record (3-2 in doubles).

Sunitha will not receive a direct entry into the Olympic singles or doubles competition, so we are hoping that the International Tennis Federation will award Sunitha one of its “ITF Places” or wild cards into the event so that India can be properly represented in the Games. Her current WTA Tour ranking is No. 155 in singles and No. 111 in doubles (which places her outside – not just outside – but respectfully outside of the cut-offs for entry). It is no secret that India is one of the most important emerging markets in tennis (the WTA Tour and its excellent CEO Larry Scott is doing all that it can to make the tour event in Bangalore as big and prestigious as it can). Sunitha’s countrywomen Sania Mirza is a huge magnet for publicity and exposure for tennis in India, the world’s second most populous country with over 1 billion citizens. Sania (currently ranked No. 32 in singles and No. 20 in doubles) is currently off the tour with a right wrist injury and there is some doubt that she will even be fit enough for the Games. Should she not be ready to post for the Beijing Games, India would be without a female representative in the singles or doubles draw. This is why we are hoping the ITF will recognize Sunitha’s strong results – and the importance of having Indian women represented at the Games – and be kind enough to award Sunitha a singles or doubles wild card into the event. If Sania is fit for singles in Beijing, we hope that a wild card can be given to Sania and Sunitha in doubles. Sania and Sunitha are great role models for young Indians – particularly young Indian women – and their participation in the Olympics will help continue to fuel the fires of increased interest in tennis in India and in Asia in general.

“It would mean the world to me to represent India in the Olympics. I have dreamed about it my whole life,” said Sunitha. “The popularity of tennis is really growing a lot in India, which is a great thing, especially with the popularity of Sania Mirza. So many youngsters, especially girls, are taking up tennis now, and it’s a great thing to see!”

Levar’s Travels and Cause

It’s the year 2002, and for some reason I am having a lot of difficulty playing a tournament. It’s not the level of the tournament, injury, nor is it where the tournament is that is giving me trouble. This biggest problem I’m having is that I am not sure how I’m going to be able to get back if I get on a plane and go. Unfortunately, I can’t afford a roundtrip ticket. This is a story that a lot of tennis players go through but that story is rarely told. However, my struggles are directed at a tournament we all know…..Wimbledon.

I was a top international junior player, was a practice partner for Captain John McEnroe and the U.S. Davis Cup Team in 2000 and won the USTA National Junior Doubles Championships with Andy Roddick. I was also climbing the ranks as a young pro.

However, I find myself talking to a Merrill Lynch associate trying to convince her that I need a credit card so I can go play Wimbledon. Mind you, I am only playing qualifying but it is still THE most prestigious tennis event in the world. So the idea that I couldn’t find the money to go compete was very troubling to me but it was the reality I had to go through. I had success in my efforts to convince her that I was a tennis player and participating and that the prize money alone for losing first round would most likely cover most of my expenses. However since I was buying my plane ticket to London late, that cost went up and I had to pick a day early in the week to also keep that price down. Turns out that would come back to bite me……

So having gone through the stress of leveraging my savings and insurance just to get a credit card to go play Wimbledon, I arrive slightly relieved but not optimistic about my chances at playing well. I was praying for a relatively easy first round, possibly a Spaniard or South American (whom traditionally don’t do well on the grass surface). My prayers were not answered. I draw Nenad Zimonjic. A 6’4″ monster with a cannon serve and one of the worlds top doubles players. Not a good match up on grass for me being 5’9 counter-puncher and shot-maker.

I proceed to lose the first set and go down an early break in the second and it seems as if my trip just got real short. However, I manage to hold on and win the second set and take it to a third, where I managed to pull out a hard-fought match. Now back to how I mentioned my flights. Well since I was almost assuming to lose and trying to save money I had to book my flight early, well now I had to change it one day back. Costing me money I didn’t want to spend.

My next round is against a very similar opponent to myself. Amir Hadad, an Israeli with great hands and incredible shot-maker in his own right. I pull out another match with a 7-5 victory in the third. Again having to change my flight thinking or maybe hoping I would lose.

I am in the last round of the qualifying tournament and a glimpse of hope starts to set in. I have a real chance for the main draw where getting here was almost impossible. Standing in front of me on this day is Austrian Jurgen Melzer. He is a lefty, with a nice serve good returns and a very good record on grass. Against Melzer, it was not to be that nice finish to a strange story. I lost a tough four-set match. I played well but not well enough to get it.

Following the match loss, the real problems set in. I had to change my flight twice and pay for my hotel, not to mention stringing, food, etc. I tallied up a hefty bill. However, there is a rule in tennis known as Lucky Loser (not the most endearing term) where players that lose in the final round of qualifying can get into the tournament if a main draw player pulls out before the first round with an injury. My potential “lucky loser” status kept me around at the event for the entire week while getting a daily stipend from the tournament. It was one of those really wet first weeks at Wimbledon and that daily stipend allowed me to save up enough money to pay all my bills for the week, including my flight change fees and other ridiculous fees I incurred through that airline which will remain nameless…..

All being said, tennis is an expensive sport, and its costs are rarely offset in a players attempt to climb the rankings. At the time, I was a top U.S. prospect – and the second-highest ranked black player in the world behind James Blake – yet opportunities to finding money to help finance the “start-up costs” of my tennis career/business just weren’t there.

My experiences inspired me to co-found The Global Tennis Foundation (www.globaltennisfoundation.org) , a non-profit, 5-1c3 organization with a mission statement to “To redefine the way tennis is perceived and developed in America.” It is my goal – and the goal of the foundation, to help provide sponsorship support for talented athletes. We want no one to have to rely on ‘lucky loser” money just to get a plane flight back home.

Stay tuned for more updates from the world of professional tennis and updates from the athletes in our program and who are benefiting from our Foundation.