In celebration of Pride Month, throughout June USTA Florida recognizes all of those in the LGBTQ+ community whose talents and dedication help to grow the great game of tennis every day — at every level. We applaud them all for making tennis a better and more inclusive sport, and for making the face of our game more accurately reflect the dynamic diversity of our country.
Tampa native Henri Pichal is the Chairman of Advantage Tampa Bay (ATB), a Florida non-profit that promotes recreational tennis both in the Tampa Bay Area and through the GLTA (Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance). The gay-friendly league welcomes all levels of players from beginner to advanced. Several facilities host ATB’s events, including the Sandra Freedman Tennis Complex, HCC Tennis Center, Harbour Island Athletic Club, Julian B. Lane Riverfront and MacFarlane Parks in Tampa, and Puryear Park in St. Petersburg.
Tennis is clearly a big part of your life. When did you first pick up a racquet?
My parents enrolled me in private tennis lessons around the age of 10 so I would learn the proper technique. Then I went to one of John Newcombe’s tennis camps and I was hooked. I continued to play high school tennis and taught junior tennis at the YMCA until college.
How did you get involved with Advantage Tampa Bay?
After I started college, I didn’t play consistently again until 2016, after a breakup. I did a Google search for LGBT tennis and the rest is history!
For those who may not know, what does Advantage Tampa Bay do as an organization?
Advantage Tampa Bay is a non-profit, gay-affirming, tennis and social league servicing the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. We are a member organization of the GLTA (Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance) and provide year-round opportunities for tennis play, social events, and tournaments.
What is the goal of the organization?
Our goal is to provide a safe, non-judgmental place for members of the LGBTQ+ community to enjoy the game of tennis. We encourage individuals of all levels to join, from social to competitive tournament players. We strive to provide something for everyone at ATB.
Why do you think it is important for there to be LGBTQ+ specific sports clubs/organizations?
Athletics can reflect the best of America because on the playing field, people are judged based on their skills and talent – not their identities. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Many LGBTQ+ people still feel somewhat uncomfortable or “excluded” in regular organized sports. We provide a safe environment and build confidence while improving tennis skills.
Why should people participate in LGBTQ+ tennis activities and sports?
To build confidence in themselves through a sport they already enjoy and to experience the camaraderie of an organized team. We partner with other local LGBTQ+ sports teams as well – such as softball, bowling, and volleyball – to provide another level of inclusion and community.
How can USTA Florida better engage the LGBTQ+ community in Florida?
We feel the USTA is committed to diversity and inclusion, but we need continued support to remove the stigma still present in many clubs. Discrimination or harassment of a player because they don’t look, dress, speak, or act like you is simply not acceptable. Sexual identity should have no bearing on belonging or being accepted in a tennis organization.
What does Pride mean to you?
It means completely accepting myself. It is acknowledging history, from the Stonewall Riots of ’69 to the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s, and dedicating myself to not be silent, and not to hide who I am for convenience. That is how we will grow and have true integration and diversity because there is nothing wrong with me or any LGBTQ+ person. Hate is learned.
How has the sport welcomed you? What do you love most about it?
I have found that tennis, and other non-contact sports, tend to be more welcoming as a rule. As a junior, I was involved in swimming and tennis teams because my parents feared I would get injured. Now, I just enjoy the personal challenge of improving my game individually, at my pace.
What I love the most about tennis is that you can enjoy playing singles, doubles, or mixed doubles at any level. And if you feel uncomfortable with your level, you can change it by taking lessons or increasing your practice time. And the health effects are immeasurable.
How does tennis help you connect with the LGBTQ+ community?
I was honestly living a mostly “closeted” lifestyle with a partner for many years. My involvement with ATB Tennis opened a door for me and connected me with other LGBTQ+ professionals. The community acceptance and support have been instrumental in many ways. It is so important to feel a part of a team, “as is”. And that is one reason ATB tennis is not only about tennis, but community.
Do you have an LGBTQ+ sporting hero?
Michael Sam. As a former employee for an NFL team, the courage it took Michael to speak his truth in 2014 was astounding. I will never forget those words, “I’m Michael Sam. I’m a football player, and I’m gay”. And Megan Rapinoe, for being such a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and equal pay for women in sports.
What advice do you have for members of the LGBTQ+ community about getting involved in tennis?
Give it a chance. If you have always wanted to try, take a lesson at a local club. Learn the basics. You will either be hooked for life, or decide it isn’t for you. But if you love it, there is a place for you and unlimited opportunities to play.
If you had to share your message of unity, what would it be?
Be yourself. Don’t pretend or hide for someone else, it will never get you anywhere. Live your truth but be an example of unconditional love and acceptance.
USTA Florida believes tennis is for everyone. For more information on how you can support, participate in, or find tennis play opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community in Florida, visit USTAFlorida.com/Diversity.