Althea Gibson

From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein (published in 1999):

“Given the same chance as others have had, blacks would dominate our sport as they have in other sports”, asserted Arthur Ashe, tennis first black men’s champion, in 1968.

For the first half of the twentieth century, blacks had no chance to compete at, let alone dominate, world-class tournaments. A major reason for this racial discrimination was that white athletes in tennis and other sports were afraid of competing on an equal basis with blacks.

“For 120 years, white America has gone to extraordinay lengths to discredit and discourage black participation in sports because black athletes have been so successful,” Ashe wrote in a New York times column.

In the not-so-good old days, the “Whites only” signs on tennis courts didn’t refer only to clothes. To end that separate but unequal segregation and to promote the grassroots game among black Americans, the American Tennis Association was organized in 1916. Before the ATA, black players, chiefly from the Northeast, participated in invitational interstate tournaments, the first being staged in Philadelphia in 1898. But since blacks were barred from playing in United States Lawn Tennis Association – sanctioned tournaments prior to 1940, the ATA struggled for years to ovecome that towering barrier to equality.

Despite a shortage of rackets, balls, courts, topflight coaching and funds for travel, outstanding black players such as Ora Washington, Jimmie McDaniel, and Oscar Johnson Jr emerged. Washington, a superb all-around athlete, captured seven straight ATA national women’s singles titles from 1929 to 1935.
McDaniel was “the greatest black tennis player of them all,” according to Sydney Llewellyn, a self-described archivist of black tennis from New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “McDaniel was better than Ashe. He was bigger, stronger,” Llewellyn told Tennis USTA. “He was a tall lefty, maybe 6’5. He’d take etwo steps and be all over the net. He had it all. He would have won a bunch of Grand Slams somewhere along the line, if he had had the chance.”

He didn’t because his heyday, albeit an obscure one, ended in the 1940s. Johnson dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of tennis”, came closer. As a skinny seventeen-year-old from Los Angeles, he broke ground as the first black to play in and win a USLTA national tournament, the 1948 National Junior Public Parks. Five years later promoter Jack Kramer offered Johnson a pro contact, but a snapped ebow tendon prematurely finished his career.

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Ashe vs Connors, Wimbledon 1975

From Jimmy Connors’ autobiography, The Outsider:

Two days before the start of Wimbleon in 1975, I picked up a newspaper and turned straight to the sports section. The headline read: Connors sues Ashe.

I’m in the middle of a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Jack Kramer, Donald Dell, and the ATP, and here I am launching a new one. I discovered that Riordan (Connors’ manager) had filed two lawsuits in Indianapolis, claiming damages of $5 million in total for libelous comments that had apparently been directed at us. The first concerned a letter written by Arthur Ashe, as ATP president, in which he referred to me as “unpatriotic.” The second complaint ran along the same lines, originating in an article written by Bob Briner, the ATP’s secretary. He supposedly called Riordan a “nihilist”. Is that even an insult?

Chasing a drop shot early in my first-round match on the damp grass of Centre Court, I slipped and hyperextended my knee. I didn’t think much about it at the time; I carried on playing and won 6-2 6-3 6-1. But once the adrenaline rush of my first Wimbledon title defense was over, all that changed. I felt a degree of pain that I had never experienced before.
I thought I would be OK after some rest, but when I woke up the next morning, the pain had intensified; my knee was completely swollen and unable to support my weight. I needed to get it checked out. I got in touch with Bill and he found me the top physiotherapist at Chelsea Football Club, one of England’s leading soccer teams, which had the facilities to treat this kind of injury. After they examined me, it turned out I had a couple of hairline fractures in my shin – painful but treatable.
The physiotherapist’s advice was simple: rest. The timing could not have been worse. There were only two tournaments that I would have even considered playing while badly injured: Wimbledon and the US Open. As Pancho always told me, once you walk out there, be prepared to play, or don’t walk out there. Well, I thought I was ready. The physiotherapist wrapped up my leg and off I went to practice. I knew that once I was on the court, I would forget about the medical warnings.

After every match I won in those two weeks, I would immediately go for an intensive treatment of ultrasound, ice, and massage – and I wasn’t above taking a fistful of painkilllers, either. I kept the injury as secret as I could, refusing to wear even an Ace bandage; I wasn’t going to give anyone an edge.

I advanced to the final without losing a set, but 24 hours before my showdown with Ashe, the physio warned me once again to take it easy; he was afraid the fractures were getting worse. So why did I continue to play? Because I’m an idiot. I did decide to take the day off before the final, though.

By match time the next day, I’m ready to go. I start off steadily, but I can’t find my rhythm; I’m sluggish and Ashe is playing perfect tennis. I lose the first two sets easily 6-1 6-1, and now I’m getting desperate. Funny how things happen when you’re on the brink; a shot here, a lucky break there, and I win the third set 7-5. I go up a service break early in the fourth set and I’m starting to feel like I have the momentum, but that doesn’t last long. My shots lack pace; the catch the tape and fall backward. The recovery I think I’ve engineered turns out to be a figment of my imagination. Ashe comes back strong to win the set, match, and the Wimbledon title.

After his victory, Ashe turned to the crowd and raised his fist in triumph. He was a popular winner – and he was playing for black America, as well as representing all the members of the ATP. He deserved to revel in his moment. Arthur’s game was flawless that day; he had figured out the play to play me. By reducing the speed and length of his shots, he constantly brought me into the net before passing or lobbing me. […]

Ashe didn’t like me. He resented all the money I was making from my Challenge Matches, on the grounds that they would diminish the prestige of the Grand Slams. And he didn’t appreciate my attitude towards the Davis Cup. As for how he felt about Riordan’s multiple lawsuits, well, we never talked about that. Arthur didn’t have the balls to confront me; instead, he left a note in my locker at Wimbledon outlining his position.
Well, that speaks volumes, doesn’t it? All he had to do was come up and talk to me face to face, man to man, but he chose not to. It annoyed me, but not so much as when he walked out on to Centre Court wearing his Davis Cup jacket, with USA emblazoned across his chest.

In 1974, probably 90 percent of the fans at Wimbledon had been rooting for Ken Rosewall. In 1975, you guessed it, 90 percent of the fans were rooting for Arthur Ashe. What’s a guy gotta do to win friends around here? It took me a few more years to find out the answer to that question.

Vitas Gerulaitis

Excerpt of Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography The Outsider:

A friend remembered

Vitas Gerulaitis was 17 and I was 19 when we first met, after he met the Riordan circuit.
We hung out a lot together through the 70s and 80s. When I won the US Open in 1978, I went out for a celebration dinner at Maxwell’s Plum in Manhattan. Vitas drove up and parked right in front of the restaurant, and let me tell you, he was hard to miss: Vitas was the only guy around tennis – or around most places – who drove a yellow Rolls Royce. He got out of the car with two cute young girls who couldn’t have been a day over 18, waltzed in, and sat down to congratulate me. He was the only one who did that. He was all class.

What the public saw was the real Vitas: the dazzling smile, the free-spirited guitar-playing rocker, the over-the-top playboy lifestyle. Yet he was also one of the most decent guys I’ve ever known, and everyone liked him.
Although he had his own crowd that included Borg and Mac, Vitas and I were close, and it was a no-bullshit friendship. It was an open secret that Vitas had a big problem with cocaine, and it led to his retirement from the game at the end of 1985.
Without the discipline of tennis to hold him in check, Vitas’ habit intensified dramatically. It’s the reason I asked him in 1989 to travel with me to Europe for five months. I might not have been his closest buddy, but you don’t abandon people when the going gets tough. As much as I hated drugs, we were buddies throughout the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

My friend Vitas was only 40 years old when he died. He was very close to his mom and his sister, he was a good son and brother and always looked after his family. Patti and I went to his funeral, at St Dominic, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and joined 500 other people – including Mac, Borg, Billie Jean King, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, Fred Stolle, and Mary Carillo – to mourn our friend. Out if respect for Vitas, the governor closed the Long Island Expressway when they took his casket from the church to the cemetery.

Vitas brought a lot to tennis – not just his athletic style of play but also his rock-star sex appeal, which added a new dimension to the tour. He was a wild and flamboyant but also a great champion, winning the Australian Open in 1977 and reaching the finals of the French Open and the US Open. He was a Davis Cup participant and winner of 25 Grand Prix tournaments.
Is any of that recognized by the tennis establishment? No. Vitas had a Hall of Fame career, but apparently he didn’t have a Hall of Virtue career, but who does? It shouldn’t be the case but his outstanding record and major contribution to the sport have, sadly, been overshadowed by his issues off the court.
I miss him.”

Manolo Santana Roland Garros

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

One of the craziest anomalies of the 1960s, a decade in which the great champions were bared from the great tournaments, concerned two Spaniards born within nine months of one another duing the Civil War. There was nothing to choose between their levels of performance. But Andres Gimeno turned professional in 1960 and played his best tennis in the proud, exclusive environment of Jack Kramer‘s tour. Towards the end of the 1960s, only Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were better players.
But superficial historians may recall Gimeno only as the chap who, at the age of 34, won the 1972 French championship from an unusually modest bunch of challengers. By contrast Santana stayed in the ‘shamateur’ ranks, picked up an impressive array of Grand Slam titles, had a wonderful Davis Cup record, became a national hero, and captivated everybody in sight. So Santana received far more publicity and achieved a bigger reputation, except among the cognoscenti. Santana played no better than Gimeno did but had the more spectacular game, the more crowd-pleasing court presence, and probably a greater depth of competitive self-belief.

First a word about Gimeno, who was Santana’s Davis Cup teammate from 1958 to 1960 and 1972-1973, winning 17 out of 22 singles and breaking even in ten doubles. Gimeno was 6ft 1 1/2in tall but looked even bigger because he was straight-backed, held his head high, and had a tiptoed style that suggested he was wary of damaging the court. His bearing was patrician, his manner courteous, his game elegant. Gimeno stroked the ball with the teasing flourish one associates with the bull-fighting breed. The forehand was his stronger flank and although it was sometimes said his backhand couldn’t break an egg, he placed the shot shrewdly.
Gimeno had a sure touch and made effective use of the lob. There was a purpose behind every shot he played and his game was as tidy in detail as it was sound in conception. But he had nothing that could really hurt his opponents and on big occasions he tended to be too highly strung, too diffident, to do himself complete justice. Gentleman that he was, Gimeno may have had too much respect for the likes of Laver and Rosewall.

Would Santana have done any better in that company? One doubts it. He turned down a professional offer because he considered he could more tournaments and more prestige, make more money, and have a more congenial lifestyle by remaining in the ‘shamateur’ ranks. There came a time when Santana and Roy Emerson, as the biggest fish in a thinly stocked pool, could command $1,000 to $1,500 a week. They had no illusion. They knew that they would be smaller fish in the professional pool. An embarrassing decision was forced upon them and they chose the course that suited their circumstances and their natures. It worked out pretty well for them and it worked out pretty well for Spain, too. By winning two Grand Slam titles on clay and two on grass, and twice guiding his country to the Davis Cup challenge round, Santana did even more for Spanish tennis (and the nation’s sporting reputation in general) than Severiano Ballesteros was to achieve via golf.[…]

Santana was the Ilie Nastase of the 1960s: less of an athlete, true but more disciplined in his conduct and his match-play, and in the same class when it came to artistic wizardry. An example of the shots they had in common what that rare flower, the chipped forehand, which both played with such facility that they might have been picking daisies. The joyous feature of their tennis was a common ability to mask their intentions. Their dextrous powers of deception were such that they consistently pulled off the tennis equivalent of the three-card trick.

Santana used every hue in the box during the 1961 French championships, in which he beat the top three seeds – Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Nicola Pietrangeli – to win his (and Spain’s) first major championship. Santana beat Laver 3-6 6-2 4-6 6-4 6-0. Laver led 4-1 in the fourth set but, emmeshed in a beautiful network of shot-making, could not win another game. In the final, Santana beat a kindred spirit, Pietrangeli, by 4-6 6-1 3-6 6-0 6-2. It was a sunny afternoon and the arena was as much an artists’ studio as a tennis stadium. Each man in turn stepped up to the canvas while the other was, so to speak, taking time off to mix his colours. The vast assembly could hardly believe their luck. Ultimately Pietrangeli, champion in the two previous years, had to admit that he was the second best. […]

They met again in the 1964 final but by that time Santana’s star had waxed and Pietrangeli’s was beginning to wane. On clay, Santana had proved all he needed to prove. So he concentrated his attention on the grass-court bastions: and had luck on his side in that, at Forest Hills and Wimbledon in turn, the most fancied contenders never turned his path. At Forest Hills he played only two seeds, Arthur Ashe (5th) and Cliff Drysdale (8th), and at Wimbledon he played only one, Dennis Ralston (6th). Never mind. Santana beat everybody he had to beat. He had conquered the ‘shamateur’ world on the two extremes of clay and grass.

There was an engaging but frustrating appendix to the years of glory. In the 1969 French championships Santana and Gimeno, both 31, clashed after a nine-year beak. It was Madrid vs Barcelona plus, for watching players, a leftover battle between the now united ‘shamateur’ and professional armies. For two sets, Gimeno was too nervous to play his best tennis, whereas Santana’s shot making had a subtle splendor about it. Then Gimeno settled down and in the stress of combat santana pulled a groin muscle and eventually had to retire. Gimeno won 4-6 2-6 6-4 6-4 1-0.

Santana and Gimeno had explored different avenues in their pursuit of fame and fortune. Their joint achievement was to lift Spanish tennis to a level it had never reached before: a level that was consolidated by Manuel Orantes and to some extent Jose Higueras. Orantes was runner-up for the 1974 French title and in 1975 he won the first of the three US Open contested on a gritty, loose-top surface.
That was a memorable triumph for two reasons. In a semi-final Vilas led Orantes by 6-4 6-1 2-6 5-0 and had five match points. Orantes won, but he was up half the night because he could not tourn off the bathroom tap and had to find a plumber. Then he went back on court and, in the final, gave Jimmy Connors a lesson in the craft of clay-court tennis.

Enjoy this 4-part Rolex documentary retracing Wimbledon’s history from Suzanne Lenglen to Rod Laver to Roger Federer. A must-see for every tennis fan.

Part 1 (1877-1939): the foundations of Wimbledon

Suzanne Lenglen, designer Ted Tinling, Gussie Moran, Bill Tilden, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Don Budge, Helen Wills, Fred Perry

Part 2 (1945-1977): a brand new era

Virginia Wade, Jack Kramer, Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson, Ann Jones, Louise Brough, Harry Hopman, Ken McGregor, Rod Laver, Frank Sedgman, Cliff Drysdale, WCT, Handsome Eight, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King

Part 3 (1978-1999): the Golden Era

Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Martina Navatilova, Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi

Part 4 (2000-2011): Sampras, Federer, Venus and Serena

Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter, Roger Federer, Goran Ivanisevic, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, John Isner, Nicolas Mahut