By Mike Kinney
When she was 8 years old, Sande French’s little brother Don gave her a globe for Christmas. Every night, she would spin it, then dream about the place where her finger would stop it.
“Who knew I would have a chance to experience some [of those places],” said French. “From playing on the public courts of Nicholl Park in Richmond, California, to my first grass court event, the public park that becomes Eastbourne’s event on the English Channel, or a sumptuous meal in Tallinn, Estonia or sushi in Tokyo, or witnessing the longtail soaring and the crystal blue skies of Bermuda, traversing the Great Wall of China, a stroll along the Huevo de Julio in Buenos Aires, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, stepping on the revered motherland of Cameroon, to the low grass of Wimbledon.”
Had someone told French she would live this dream, “I would have laughed them into the next county.”
“Yet, here I am watching worldwide tennis from the best seat in the house,” French said.
On Saturday, Sept. 17, French, a Richmond native, Richmond High graduate and the first and only Black female chair umpire in professional tennis in the U.S., was formally inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. She was among seven people inducted at the 14th annual ceremony at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.
We were tipped off to this Hall of Fame honor by Arto Rinteela, president of the Fairmeade Hilltop Neighborhood Council, who was a classmate of French’s in the graduating Class of 1974 at Richmond High. Rinteela remembers another one of French’s talents that manifested in the high school marching band.
‘Everybody wanted to be around SandE.’
“She was a talented clarinet player,” Rinteela said. “She had a great personality and was very smart. Everybody wanted to be around Sande.”
Rinteela also recalled French as “one of the few” tennis players at Richmond High in those days.
While accepting her latest honor (see the video of the ceremony here), French reflected with deep gratitude on her 36 years of officiating professional tennis. Her resume speaks for itself. In 1993, French became the only African-American in history to chair the US Open Singles Final. She has chaired 10 U.S. Open Finals, worked Wimbledon six times and the Australian Open three times. She also chaired the Fed Cups internationally and the NCAA championship Final.
French also gives back to her profession, taking the initiative to conceive, implement and teach chair clinics and training in Northern California. She has volunteered as a referee for regional wheelchair tournaments for 12 years, coached a wheelchair player, was a member of USTA chair mentoring program in 2010, assisted coaching at Mendocino High School in 2014, and was a USTA trainer and/or evaluator from 1995 to 2015.
Her awards and accolades are numerous, from 1991 Umpire of the Year in Northern California to election into the Bay Area African-American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. Four years prior, she was honored with the Multicultural Participation Committee Trailblazing Award.
Throughout her career, she has inspired others, including people of color, to aspire to become tennis officials or to achieve higher levels in their careers.
‘One never knows what life will bring. The endgame always is to improve from the previous day.’
During the Black Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony, French thanked her college teammate, Karen Cook-Henderson, “who nudged me and got me started in officiating 36 years ago.” She thanked various “ohanas,” from her family to her colleagues over the years.
French also expressed “immense gratitude” to Jay Snyder, who as chairman of officials saw her potential by giving her a shot. She acknowledged her “first bestie umpire Joy Gay, who regularly stood up for us when we were treated unjustly, pushing back on the archaic practices.”
“When she passed in 1996, I took over her mantle, which is where my trouble began,” French said.
Along with Cecil Holland, French sued the USTA and ITF for discrimination, alleging officials of conspiring to keep Blacks and women from officiating important matches. It’s a stand “that cost us both of our careers,” French said. “Twenty-nine years later nothing has changed, we all know why.”
French says the inner workings of professional tennis will be revealed in her upcoming book.
“McEnroe deserves a whole chapter,” she quipped. “It will be fun.”
As a Black, gay woman who achieved great things in tennis officiating, French said she’s benefited from generations of barrier-breakers.
“I stand on their shoulders,” she said. “I embrace their excellence and am forever indebted for their sacrifices.”
She added, “One never knows what life will bring. The endgame always is to improve from the previous day.”