Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon 1975

Arthur Ashe, the pioneer

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions by Rex Bellamy

The achievements of Arthur Robert Ashe – known as ‘Bones’ when he was a skinny boy and as ‘The Shadow’ when he became a skinny celebrity – are remarkable not least because of the social and racial context in which he achieved them. His blood lines were mixed but essentially he was a black who came close to dominating a white world. In that complicated and controversial area Ashe was a pioneer of enduring influence: as he was in the organization of professionals as a corporate force, as a central figure in the game’s administrative evolution, and as a driving force behind revisions of the rules of play. In addition to all that he found time for a diversity of business ventures and social and charitable work. Like a stone cast into a pond, Ashe made a splash that sent ripples – often, waves – in every direction. Consequently his historic status was more important than his playing record suggests, distinguished though that was.

Descended from West African slaves, Ashe was brought up in a legally segregated community (a parallel of sorts with the South African politics into which he later dipped his toes) and learned to live with the racial distinctions. His mothe was frail and died when he was six years old. So Ashe and his brother Johnny were mainly brought up by his father, who policed and othewise tended a ‘black’ public park in which Ashe played his first tennis. The local tennis clubs and tournalents were no-go areas for anyone of Ashe’s pigmentation. His development had two main causes, other than his ability and character. One was the proximity of a black physician and tennis coach, Dr Walter Johnson, from Lynchburg. Ashe first went there when he was 10. Johnson had much to do with the grooming of the first black American to achieve international renown in tennis: Althea Gibson, who won the Wimbledon, United States and French championships in the 1950s.
Now, he did the same for Ashe, though Johnson’s son Bobby undertook most of the actual coaching. Dr Johnson and Ashe’s father also taught the teenager to ride the punches of racial prejudice and injustice and acquire the disciplined composure, the outward serenity, the dignity, with which he conducted himself. It must have helped, too, that the Ashe brothers joined their father on fishing and deer-hunting expeditions that taught them to wait patiently, with brains in gear, and endure frustration. The other main cause for Ashe’s advance was his liking and aptitude for study. He went to high school at St Louis and moved on to the University of California in Los Angeles, where he was plunged into the seaching fires of collegiate coaching and competition.

In those days tennis had yet to gain acceptance as a full-time competitive sport and the more talented Americans tended to complete their college commitments before joining the world tour and finding out just how good they were. Ashe was 22 years old, and already an established Davis Cup player with some heartening results behind him, when he went to Australia for the 1965-66 season and consolidated a growing reputation: first in the state tournaments and then in the Australian championships. He was runner-up to Roy Emerson that year and the next, but the wreckage his awesome serving left in its wake included Tony Roche, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe. Ashe had arrived. He was ready to play a starring role. It turned out to be both historic and bizarre.

The 1968 festival at Forest Hills was the first United States championships open to every category of player. Ashe, then a US Army lieutenant who was beginning to speak out on civil right issues and was getting rapped on the knuckes for doing so, beat Emerson, Cliff Drysdale, Clark Graebner, and Tom Okker in consecutive matches to win the title – which was a break-through for him, for American men’s tennis and for the black cause. The bizarre side of it, apart from the fact that the fifth-seeded Ashe had to play nobody seeded above him, was that under the daft rules then governing the classification of players, the first prize of $14,000 went to the runner-up, Okker. By contrast, Ashe was restricted to an expenses allowance of $28 a day and received a total of $280 for the tournament. All that sat odly with the fact that a month earlier Ashe had turned down an offer of $400,000, spread over five years, from George MacCall, president of the National Tennis League, one of the two groups of touring players then in business. But Ashe and his agent Donald Dell, could afford to wait a while. They knew that huge profits would accrue from open competition and a series of off-court business deals. […]

Arthur Ashe, 1968 US Open

In 1968 Ashe made news as a pioneer on the shirt front: by changing shirts alongside the court, with the referee’s permission. He was also among the first to expolre the possibilities of coloured shirts. In the early 1970s Ashe also explored the possibilities of South Africa, but he was regarded with apprehension and it was not until 1973 – after two previous applications for a visa had been turned down – that he was allowed to compete in the South Afican championships and thus built on the educational experience of earlier State Department tours.
He was afflicted by more controversy during the 1971 and 1972 US championships. In 1971 Jan Kodes came from behind to beat him in a semi-final that swung towards Kodes during drizzling rain that, in the referee’s opinion, did not justify a stoppage. Ashe was handicapped because he was wearing glasses. That match induced him to switch to soft-lens contacts.
And in the 1972 final Ashe was visibly disconcerted by Ilie Nastase’s ill-mannered tomfoolery and let him off the hook. These two had an even moe sensational clash during the all-play-all segment of the 1975 Masters tournament in Stockholm. Both were disqualified: Ashe because he walked off court, his immense reserves of patience exhausted by Nastase’s flouting of the rules, and Nastase because the referee had been on the point of disqualifying him anyway. Next day, Ashe was reinstated and awarded the match. But under the round-robin system Nastase was still in the tournament: and he won it.

But that was the year, 1975, in which Ashe achieved his greatest triumph. At the time Jimmy Connors was ‘so hot’ that hardly anyone gave Ashe much chance of beating him in the Wimbledon final. The match had an extra edge to it because there was a lawsuit going on, with Ashe and Connors on opposite sides. Ashe won 6-1 6-1 5-7 6-4 because – with extraordinary mental, technical, and tactical discipline – he played a game alien to his nature but shrewdly calculated to flummox an opponent who thrived on speed. Ashe did not discard his hard-hitting game altogether, but this time it was merely one component of a subtly flavoured cocktail that was not to Connors’ taste. Ashe served wide to the deuce court. During the rallies he varied spin, angle, and trajectory. He gave Connors little pace on which to feed: and no chance of playing to any set pattern or rhythm. Relentlessly, he teased Connors where it hurt most – with short, low balls to the forehand, the challenges that frustated Connors throughout his career. During the changeovers Ashe sat totally still – eyes closed, or with a towel over his head – in the intensity of his concentration on an unfamiliar job. Connors was not playing the ashe we knew. He was playing somebody else: and for all his unyielding, combative spirit, Connors was confused and subdued. In terms of strategy and tactics this was the finest performance I have seen, surpassing John Newcombe’s similar challenge to Laver in the 1969 final. One still marvels at the way Ashe played an un-Ashe game so well for so long. He was an actor who had chosen an unfamiliar mode: and he was word-perfect. […]

The unfortunate paradox was that although Ashe had the temperament for slow courts, his technique was geared to fast courts. It was celebral stuff, but served hot. His best shots were the service and the backhand, both of which often made opponents feel that they were standing in wet sand; He was no great volleyer, his steef-kneed forehand volley was always vulnerable, and he no evident talent for doubles. Like most fast-wristed players, he tended to be streaky, flashy. Ashe’s tennis reflected his off-court liking for casinos. He was a gambler. As a champion, he was not quite in the class of such contemporaries as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Ilie Nastase.

Physically, Ashe was not robust. There was not much weight of muscle: just a tall, bony, lithe and whippy man with fast hands and at times, it seemed, winged feet. In 1969 shoulder trouble took a little of the fluency out of his service action and in 1977 he had an operation to remedy a chronic ailment, a growth on the back of his left heel. In 1979, three weeks after his 36th birthday, he had a heart attack. Then came those two frightening by-pass operations and inevitably, an exclusive concentration on off-court activities. Given the restrictions that arose from his colour and the ensuing racial impediments that confronted him in the white world of tennis – plus the fact that his constitution was not ideal for the life he chose – it is amazing that Ashe achieved as much as he did.

Ashe had much to dod with breaking down whites-only policies in tennis, not least by winning tournaments at exclusive clubs which, in his early years at the top, would not have admitted him as a member. He was sensitive but learned to hide the fact, to be outwardly cool and casual – whatever the inner tensions, whatever the provocations. Ashe’s natural coutesy was re-enforced by the company he was keeping. Americans have seldom been as corporately popular as, for example, Australians. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s Donald Dell (‘Donald Deal’) was looking after the business interests of a cheerfully urbane group of players: notably Ashe, Tom Gorman, Bob Lutz, Charlie Pasarell, Marty Riessen, and Stan Smith. All were charming company and fine sportsmen.

A gentle, reflective man with an enquiring mind and intellectual leanings, Ashe had a detached air about him. But he was an eloquent conversationalist in any company, with an engaging streak of candour. Ashe always envied the British for their un-American indulgence in the mild, all-purpose expletive ‘bloody’. Language, in fact, was one of the many tracks explored by his restless mind and he was frustrated by his failure to achieve fluency in French. Nor did he get far with a proposal that a player should be able to claim a fixed amount of ‘time out’ in every set, to be taken after any game of his choosing. But one has to look hard for even such trivial failures as these. Few players have so quietly and responsibly influenced the game (and society) in so many ways. Ashe made people think – and often, rearrange their prejudices. Through it all, he inspired both respect and affection.

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