Listening to Black Voices

Briana Harris Francois on Tennis, Coco Gauff and What It's Like to Be a Minority in a White-Dominated Sport

Francois picked up a tennis racquet when she was just three-and-a-half years old. Today, after a long and successful career, she's the first Black tennis director at The Resort at Longboat Key Club.

By Heather Dunhill October 9, 2023

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Briana Francois Harris

Briana Francois Harris

Sarasota's Briana Harris Francois boasts more than 20 years as a tennis professional with the United States Professional Tennis Association (USTA), with more than 30 amateur and professional tournament wins to her name.

To say tennis has been an integral part of Harris Francois’ life is not an overstatement: she was three-and-a-half years old when she first held a tennis racquet. Born in Canton, Ohio, Harris Francois moved to Sarasota in 1990, when she was 10 years old, and was awarded a full scholarship to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy (NBTA, now IMG Academy). From 1993-1997, she was the Florida State Girls Tennis champion, and from 1998-2000—after receiving a full scholarship to the university—she was Ohio State's varsity captain. She was a Rolex Tournament finalist in 1998 and made the NCAA's Top 10 Doubles ranking in 1999. From 2000-2002, she played professionally on the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) circuit in Doha, Qatar, and Dubai, where she held a WTA ranking of 588 in singles and 462 in doubles play.

In 2018, Harris Francois created and launched B. Harris Kids, a nonprofit organization that offers free youth tennis and tutoring to needs-based and at-risk kids in Sarasota. Since its inception, B. Harris Kids impacted more than 200 students in multiple locations in Florida. Harris Francois also partnered with Carnival Cruise Lines to create a tennis program for the three- and four-year-old children of its employees.

Today, at 44, Harris Francois is the first Black director of tennis at The Resort at Longboat Key Club. She also partners with the Robert Taylor Community Complex for kids’ tennis camps. She has two children with Sam Francois, her husband of 12 years. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Who inspires you? 

"My parents­­—both were sharp, caring and the best at their crafts. As role models, they didn’t just use words to inspire us, they walked in the steps of how they wanted us to live.

"My mother, Jackie Harris, was married at 28 years old and had me at 30, but [she and my dad] divorced when I was a baby. For as long as I can remember, its been my mom and my sister and me. She’s a strong role model who led by example. For instance, she was always continuing her education in the IT field, and she worked for Goodyear. Decades later we found out that, while there, she worked on F-16 fighter jets through a government contract. She made sacrifices for my sister and me and our vision for tennis. Plus, she did everything with a smile. She’s the ultimate role model.

"My dad, Ronnie Harris, was an Olympian. He won a gold medal for boxing during the 1968 Olympics, which was famous for the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I would not be where I am without his vision for my sister and me in tennis—especially because he encouraged us in the sport because it’s the only one where woman can play each other one-on-one. My dad believed in us and taught us to believe in ourselves. He made us strong for anything that would come at us, at any angle. He even showed us how to shadow box, the footwork kept us light on our feet. That’s what tennis is all about."

In a white-dominated sport, you were in the minority. Tell us about how that affected you. 

"In 1999, I was 19 years old with my sister Tumeka and our friend Katrina Nimmers at a satellite tournament. We were invited to a players' dinner banquet as a thank you for playing with the USTA. The three of us walked in, thinking it was going to be a great time, until we saw the centerpieces, which were Confederate flags and picaninny dolls. It was the first time I had seen that doll, and Katrina’s father had to explain it to me. We knew it was time to go and turned around and left."

What was like growing up in Florida? 

"Being a Black American at NBTA wasn’t much of a thing, especially since there weren't that many Americans there. People from all over the world were there, from places like France, Germany, Brazil, Japan and Russia. That was my normal until I went outside those walls and into the Bradenton and Sarasota communities. That’s when I realized I was in a bubble—the best kind of bubble.

"The experience at NBTA prepared me for being a coach and director because I learned how to get along and communicate with every type of person and personality."

What was it like outside the bubble?

"When I was about 16, my high school best friend, who was white, and I arrived at my home on Tidy Island after practice. When we got out of the car in my driveway, we heard someone shout, ‘Go back to Africa. Why are you with her?’ The latter part was for my friend. I wondered why someone would say that. They had no idea that we had been friends since sixth grade. I thought, ‘If it was not a factor for us, why is it a factor for you?’ I was surprised that this was happening at my home.

"I told my mom, who was upset and asked me which door [the shouting] came from. She knocked on the door but no one answered. She also called the president of the [homeowners'] association. We didn’t have any other issues.

"I don’t dwell on things like that, but it did make me think about my environment a little more. After that, I would scan for anything out of the norm."

Is it safe to say that you relate to the magnitude of Coco Gauff’s recent win? 

"I was so excited, and excited for Coco—especially following Venus and Serena. She worked her entire life for that moment. That win is made up of not only her sacrifices as a tennis player, but also the sacrifices of those around her. It takes a village."

And how about when she thanked all the people who didn’t believe in her?

"When Coco said the haters fueled her, she was speaking to everyone who might have any self-doubt. She used that platform to share an inspirational comment.  You never know who you’re going to touch. It’s about building people up, not tearing them down. I was like, 'Woman power!'

"It also reminded me of how my dad taught us to stay positive and use anything negative on the court to prove [critics] wrong. He said, ‘You have to be your biggest fan' and told us that we could do everything, and no one could tell us differently."

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

"Be my friend. Period. I’m from a multicultural life and family and have always been in that kind of [multicultural] bubble. To others I say: get to know people for who they are."

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill

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