Andre Agassi, 1991

By Scott Ostler, published in THE NATIONAL, March 1991

LAS VEGAS- So I’m driving a white, $500,000 Lamborghini Countach, which is basically a jet engine with turn signals, weaving through heavy traffic near the Strip, trying to catch another motorist who has requested a drive-by autograph from the guy riding shotgun with me, trying to be cool while hoping not to pop the clutch and send us rocketing into the fountain at Caesars Palace, and idly wondering if I’m being conned.

My passenger, the owner of the Lamborghini, is Andre Agassi, Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis. Public opinion on Agassi seems divided into two camps – tennis insiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners, and tennis outsiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners.

Agassi is aware of the criticism. He is aware that, to an extent, he has earned it. He has launched a campaign to make himself more accessible to the press and lovable to the public.

I have taken my shots at Agassi in print, had roaring good fun at his expense because it seemed like the right thing to do. But a tennis promoter I know has pleaded with me, “If you just meet Andre, get to know him…”

Sounds like a crazy idea, but I phone Agassi’s agent and request an interview. The agent phones back and says Andre will do an interview, but there is a catch. The agent says, “Andre wants to know if, instead of just talking for an hour or so, you two can get together and spend some quality time.”

This is not an unusual request in the world of athlete-media relations; this is a freakish and bizarre request. Most famous sports figures define quality time as any time spent away from the media – the farther away, the higher the quality.

Paranoia sets in. Am I allowing myself to be used as a PR tool, a dupe in a plot to fix Agassi’s bad name so he can sell more sneakers and cameras?

Or could it be that he really is a decent fellow who wants the world to see the side of him that isn’t about tanking, taunting, ducking, and spitting?

You be the judge. For the record, though, I spent about seven hours with Agassi in this, his hometown, and here are some of the things he did not do:

* Curse,

* Gossip or badmouth anyone in any significant way, not even to call anyone a bozo.

* Fail to open a door for anyone, man or woman.

* Fail to drive courteously and safely.

* Refuse an autograph request.

* Bleach, tease, comb or fuss with his famous hair, or otherwise primp or pose.

* Play loud music on his car stereo, except for one quick demonstration.

* Leer at babes.

* Act even remotely angry, impatient, bored, spoiled, or – as we used to say in high school – stuck up.

Still, the day wasn’t a complete washout.

“If youdon’t mind, I’d like to take you my favorite place for breakfast,” Agassi says.

We hop into his Jeep and drive to the outskirts of town, to a truck-stop diner just off the interstate. He parks near the sea of 18-wheelers. At the diner entrance, a trucker does a groggy double-take as the kid with a diamond earring, long fluffy hair and Levi’s shorts politely holds open the door.

Sure, this restaurant could be part of the con. But the people who work here know Andre, a couple of them come out of the kitchen to exchange pleasantries. Nobody asks for an autograph.

“To me, this is real life,” Agassi says. “It’s not people making you believe you’re something special.”

He says that’s a problem. “I always do my best to remind myself what reality is. You have to fight so hard to keep a grip on it, to deal with the fact that you are never lacking in friends, that there’s always someone around who makes you feel like you’re special. You can forget that loneliness is a reality, but in my world, loneliness comes in a different way.

“You’re never sure, if your money was gone, how many people would still care. One thing I worry about is motives. I put people on stage. The few people really close to me, I don’t question them, but the others are guilty until proven innocent…”

Girls, for instance. They dig Andre. But is it for his money and fame, or for himself? Some girls send him photos of themselves naked. Some try and weasel into his hotel rooms. Before Andre enters a hotel room, his burly weight-training coach goes in first and checks under the beds and in the closets.

Until recently Agassi went steady with one girl for about two years.

“I’m not exclusive anymore,” he says, “but I hang out with a limited amount of people.”

Female-wise, his main friend these days is a BYU student whom Agassi doesn’t have to put on trial, which is a big relief.

“I’ve known her since I was 8,” Agassi says, “but I’m going to run out of girls like that pretty soon.”

Speaking of motives, I mention to Agassi that people might be skeptical of his new glasnost with the media, see it as a slick image-repair campaign.

“I’m flattered that they would think I’m that smart,” Agassi says. “I’m hoping my sincerity shows through that.”

Referring to a writer from THE NATIONAL who has been critical of Agassi, he says, “My goal is not to change the ideas about me. I don’t want to change the [John] Feinsteins of the world. I just don’t want to become like people, who in the midst of surviving pressure, stop telling their story. We all have pressure in our daily lives; we can’t let the pressure beat us.”

The closest Agassi has come to tap-dancing is when he talks about the pancake house incident. In a Florida restaurant one night last December, sportswriter Barry Lorge overheard Andre and his brother Phil seemingly plotting to fake an injury so Andre could skip a tournament.

“Philly and I were talking about taking steps as alternatives, not as strategies,” Andre says. “I was injured, and we were discussing ways to make that known as soon as possible, and it came off as some kind of conspiracy. I was really trying to make the right decisions.”

The flapjack flap was the sledgehammer that broke the camel’s back. Tennis magazine named Agassi Twit of the Year, and called him the Milli Vanilli of tennis.

And yet, there are the fans. At tournaments, the fans seem to enjoy the Andre show.

“Walking onto the court in San Francisco, I was reluctant to see how the crowd would respond,” Andre says. “I was relieved to see that [past misdeeds] were either water under the bridge, or were not taken seriously in the first place… Every time I step onto the court and people are in the stands, I’m flattered.”

Say this about Andre Agassi: He can drive down the street in one of his seven gleaming cars, fans honking and staring and waving, the world at his feet and be aware that he is one lucky dude.

“My father always says I was born with a horseshoe up my ass,” Agassi says with a laugh. (OK, one curse word in seven hours.) “Things have worked out well for me.”

We stop at his parents’ home, where Andre lives when he’s in Las Vegas, and we tour the garage. He owns three Porsches, the Jeep, the Lamborghini, a Ferrari Testarossa and a special-edition Corvette that will blow the doors off your standard wimpy ‘Vette. Andre is curretnly showroom-drooling over something called a Vector, a high-performance space vehicle capable of 240 mph.

He loves to give cars as gifts. He has given cars to his two sisters, his trainer, his coach. He gave a Porsche to brother Phil, a Range Rover to mom and Cadillacs to his dad, Mike Agassi. Alas, Mike Agassi still struggles with the adjustment from smaller cars to the heavy Motown metal. He has crashed two Cads and is currently nursing No. 3.

“The one thing I’d miss if I didn’t have money,” Andre says, with innocent sincerity, “would be not being able to buy my dad a new Cadillac when he totals one.”

Andre shows me his Porsche S4 GT 172 and says, “This is a real practical car, even for a family.”

Family of two, max.

The Lamborghini is practical, too, now that there is a Lamborghini mechanic in Las Vegas and Agassi doesn’t have to ship the car to Los Angeles on a flatbed truck every time it needs a fan belt.

The cars, Andre admits, are an indulgence. They are his reward for a boyhood donated to tennis, for being yanked out of school in the middle of the eighth grade and packed off to Florida, “moving away from home at 13 to a tennis academy that was like a military school.”

Andre’s agent, Bill Shelton of International Management Group, hates to see his client spend so much money on cars, but Shelton shrugs and says, “They really are his only vice.”

Andre cranks up the monster stereo system in the Ferrari. From the power and volume, I’m guessing that the Ferrari’s motor has been removed to make room for the speakers. The garage shakes but does not collapse, since the song he’s playing is mellow rock. No heavy metal for this boy.

“I’m into lyrics,” he says. “James Taylor, people like that.”

Andre Agassi, the perpetrator of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis, is an easy-listening kind of guy? It’s true. When Barry Manilow played Vegas, Andre went to see the show. Two nights in a row.

His parents’ home is a nice suburban layout but far from palatial. Andre uses his bedroom only for storage, he sleeps on a coach in the den. His alarm clock is a giant cockatoo named Fred.

“I want to buy a big, new couch,” says Mike Agassi, spreading his arms in the living room, “so Andre can sleep here, watch TV.”

The backyard is dominated by a tennis court, where Mike gives free lessons to nine local kids, and a giant TV satellite spy dish. Satellite feeds of sports events omit the commercials, allowing Mike to eavesdrop on announcers as they chit-chat during the breaks.

Mary Carillo hates me,” Andre says, matter-of-factly.

Adds Mike Agassi, “When she is not on (live) TV, she is very obnoxious.”

“{Jimmy} Connors is very bad {anti-Andre},” Andre says. “Cliff Drysdale is good, {Fred} Stolle and {Roscoe} Tanner are good, and Barry McKay.”

High on the list of the criticisms of Agassi is the feeling that he has done more product endorsing than big-tournament winning. “Major scores through minor feats,” is how Bud Collins puts it.

Agassi never has played the Australian Open, and he has snubbed Wimbledon the last three summers because it didn’t, uh, fit his schedule. This is like the Giants skipping the Super Bowl to rest up for the exhibition season, and it has done Agassi’s image no good.

The rumor is that Agassi almost surely will play Wimbledon this summer, but he doesn’t want to make a definite public commitment yet.

“If I go, I’m going over there with high hopes,” he says. “The thought of being there makes me nervous. I’m really excited.”

Andre says he wants me to meet his trainer, Gil Reyes, who lives nearby.

“Which car should we take?” Agassi asks.

I pick the Lamborghini, and we cruise the two miles to Reyes’s house. The trip takes approximately 14 seconds.

Agassi and Gil Reyes – Andre calls him Gilly – work out in Reyes’s garage in their quest to produce the first tennis player to hit a ball so hard it vaporizes. Most top tennis players are dedicated conditioners, but Agassi probably works harder than any of them on sheer power. He works on flexibility and endurance, but power is a major component of the overall plan.

When Agassi weighed 150 pounds, he already hit the ball harder than anyone in tennis. In 14 months with Reyes, Agassi has added 27 pounds of granite, and grown two inches to an even 6 foot.

“To give you an idea,” Andre says, “when I started, I bench-pressed 135 pounds. Now I do five reps with 250 pounds. And the biggest improvement has been my legs. I lost to [Boris] Becker in ’89 in three sets. He overpowered me. Last year I beat him in three sets. We’re even now in strength; we compete on ability.”

Some critics say Andre is too strong, overmuscled. His record this season would indicate some fine-tuning is needed, but Agassi and Reyes believe the work they do in the garage is correct and vital.

Bouncing around the garage demonstrating the sophisticated equipment, Andre and Gilly are like Hans and Franz of “Saturday Night Live,” brothers dedicated to a grand quest and geeked up on the pumpatude of it all.

Andre has great affection for the members of his inner council – Gilly, Philly, Billy, Nick and Dad.

Billy is Bill Shelton, Andre’s agent at IMG. Philly is Andre’s brother, personal manager and constant traveling companion. Nick is Nick Bollettieri, Andre’s coach for the last seven years. It’s a close-knit group. You prick one, they all bleed, and at times this has been Team Tourniquet.

There is a camera convention in town and Agassi has agreed to stop by the Canon exhibit to sign some autographs. In the Canon TV commercials, Andre says, “Image is everything.”

“People want to tie that [slogan] in with my philosophy of life,” Andre says, driving over to the show. “It’s [Canon’s] slogan, not my philosophy.”

The Rebel image, though, does seem to fit. Agassi’s Nike shoe commercials also play to the basic theme- Andre as James Dean with a tennis racket. He talks of getting kicked out of the Bollettieri Academy several times for refusing to cut his hair, for failing to conform. That hasn’t changed. When he visited the White House last year to meet George and Barbara Bush, Andre showed up in a sweatsuit and sneakers.

Nor is tennis etiquette his strong suit. He is the bad boy of the sport, no question, and the gods of tennis have sent down the perfect antagonist in Pete Sampras. These two are yin and yang, Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskel, at least on the surface.

Never mind that Agassi is a Christian who doesn’t drink, do drugs or even go to R-rated movies. Image is everything. When Sampras beat Agassi in the U.S Open final last year, it was a clear-cut case of good kicking evil’s butt.

“There probably are a lot of people who would have been disappointed if I’d beated Sampras,” Agsasi says nonchalantly. “It seems like Petey reaps the benfit of the controversy I start… He is capable of a broader fan base, but people know where I’m coming from and they know what I’m feeling. It’s like a good song, I won’t cheat you on the lyrics, I’ll give you your money’s worth. It would be too easy for me not too say a lot, not act up on the court, but the whole point is not just to survive.”

Sampras has taken subtle shots, through the media, at Agassi’s off-beatness, but Agassi says, “Petey’s really harmless, I don’t think he’s very vindictive.”

The autograph-signing goes smoothly. Agassi charms the Canon VIPs. He is still wearing the shorts, walking shoes with the laces untied, and a plain cotton shirt.

“Those wonderful legs,” sighs a woman standing in the autograph line.

Driving away from the convention center, Agassi talks about people he admires.

“I’m a big fan of [Wayne] Gretzky,” he says. “I love Jack Nicholson. I like the interest he creates, the mystique, what people would give to find out what he’s really like. That’s neat when you can carry that kind of charisma.

“Old George Bush has really won his place with me, too. The way he’s handled all this, the example he’s set for this country, has been awesome.”

We drive out to a golf course that Las Vegas hotel baron Steve Wynn has carved out of the desert for himself and a few select pals. It is a golfer’s Eden, with waterfalls and lakes, hills and trees. Some days you can play an entire round without seeing another foursome.

Agassi commandeers an electric cart and gives a high-speed tour of the course, nearly crashing into an outcropping of boulders as he drives blindly over the crest of a steep hill. Then he picks up his clubs and a bag of “range” balls – brand-new Titleists – and heads for the practice tee.

Agassi is a weekend golfer, never had a lesson. He plays lefthanded, though he’s a rightie in tennis. He pulls out a 3-wood and, on this chilly late afternoon, without so much as a warmup swing or a waggle or a tee, slams about 20 dandy drives down the middle, all well over 200 yards. Two or three veer off course, but even on those he makes solid contact. The swing is smooth, the distance impressive. Rock ‘n’ Roll golf.

It’s time to head to the airport, and he offers to let me drive the Lamborghini.

“That’s good,” he says as I merge cautiously onto the freeway, trying to ease the car out of third gear, “you’re going 90.”

He talks about what the 1991 model Andre Agassi will be like.

“I’ve made a commitment to get out more, to talk more,” he says. “Other than that, no difference. I’ll go out there and play some fun tennis, some hard tennis. I just want to add something to tennis. I have fun being me on the court.”

At a stoplight, a car pulls up next to the Lamborghini and the driver motions for an autograph. Agassi laughs and shrugs. The light turns green. Impulsively, Andre rips a page out of my notebook and signs his name.

“See if you can catch up with that guy,” he says.

If all this has been an act, it ‘s a real good one. Very convincing. The impression is that if Agassi can eliminate the more childish stuff- the spitting, the tanking, the taunting- what would be left would be an exceptional athlete with personality, charisma and style, and Tennis magazine would have to find itself a new Twit of the Year.

Agassi drops me off at the airport. As he roars away, six of seven people stop and stare, just like people always did in the last scene of “The Lone Ranger” TV show, when they would stand at the outskirts of town and watch the Lone Ranger gallop into the sunset on his white horse, and wonder what he was really like.

Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2015

The Happy Slam is already around the corner! On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic will be once again the huge favorite, but the women’s draw is open than ever: all four of the top-ranked have withdrawn from tournaments they entered this week due to injury.

Enjoy our Australian Open coverage on Tennis Buzz, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

A trip down memory lane:

Australian Open trivia
The tragedy of Daphne Akhurst
The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup
1960 Australian Open: Neale Feaser, a costly volley
1960: first Grand Slam title for Rod Laver
1960-63 Australian Open: Jan Lehane four time runner-up
1974 Australian Open: Jimmy Connors first Grand Slam title
1975: John Newcombe defeats Jimmy Connors
1981: First Australian Open title for Martina Navratilova
1983: Mats Wilander defeats Ivan Lendl
1984: Mats Wilander defeats Kevin Curren
1985: Edberg wins in Australia and Sweden changes look
1987-1988 Swedes spoil the party
1987: Stefan Edberg defeats Pat Cash
January 11, 1988: first day of play at Flinders Park
1988: Mats Wilander defeats Pat Cash
1990: John McEnroe disqualified!
1990: Ivan Lendl’s last Grand Slam title
1991: Monica Seles first Australian Open title
1994: First Australian Open title for Pete Sampras
1995: Mary Pierce defeats Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
1995 QF: Pete Sampras emotional comeback win over Jim Courier
1995: Andre Agassi defeats Pete Sampras, wins first Australian Open title
1996 Australian Open: Mark Philippoussis defeats Pete Sampras in the 3rd round
Impressions from the 1996 Australian Open: Monica Seles and Boris Becker last Grand Slam titles, Stefan Edberg last appearance in Australia
1997 Australian Open: Pete Sampras defeats Carlos Moya
2001 Australian Open: Pat’s last chance
2001 Australian Open final: Andre Agassi defeats Arnaud Clément
2002: Capriati scripts a stunning sequel in Australia
2003 Australian Open: last Grand Slam title for Agassi
2009 Australian Open: Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer

Recap:
Fashion and gear:
Polls:

Who will be the 2016 Australian Open champion?

  • Novak Djokovic (45%, 66 Votes)
  • Roger Federer (22%, 32 Votes)
  • Andy Murray (9%, 13 Votes)
  • Rafael Nadal (9%, 13 Votes)
  • Stan Wawrinka (7%, 10 Votes)
  • Other (3%, 5 Votes)
  • Kei Nishikori (3%, 4 Votes)
  • Tomas Berdych (2%, 3 Votes)
  • Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (1%, 1 Votes)
  • David Ferrer (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Richard Gasquet (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 147

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Who will be the 2016 Australian Open champion?

  • Serena Williams (38%, 41 Votes)
  • Maria Sharapova (22%, 24 Votes)
  • Other (14%, 15 Votes)
  • Garbine Muguruza (9%, 10 Votes)
  • Agnieszka Radwanska (7%, 8 Votes)
  • Angelique Kerber (5%, 5 Votes)
  • Simona Halep (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Petra Kvitova (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Karolina Pliskova (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Venus Williams (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Timea Bacsinszky (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 107

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1978 US Open

1978 was the first year the US Open was played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows after having been organized at the West Side Tennis Club venue in Forest Hill since 1915. It was also the first time the tournament was played on hard courts: it was originally played on grass until Forest Hills switched to Har-Tru clay courts in 1975. Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the US Open on all three surfaces.

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:

By late August, summer weighs heavily on the city of New York; each day seems like one long tepid breath drawn until dusk, then exhaled slowly through the night. The US Open is about to begin.

The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, has been completed just in time to host the tournament that will henceforth call it home. A boardwalk leads from the subway to the new facility, which is adjacent to Shea Stadium, the sprawling home of the New York Mets and Jets. This boardwalk crosses over a subway yard, where hundreds of cars sit idle, covered with graffiti. The walk is lined with flags: American flags. Over seventy of them, counting those on top of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. There isn’t a foreign standard in sight, because the USTA is bullish on the American role in international tennis.

The Americans leaped on the treadmill of professionalism faster than their international counterparts. As part of its massive attempt to popularize the sport, the USTA abandoned the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills, a site redolent of tradition and all the genteel qualities associated with tennis. Although the stadium at Forest Hills held 13,500, the USTA deemed it to small. The hordes that descended on the 10.5 acres of the West Side Tennis Club created impossibly crowded conditions. Besides, parking facilities were inadequate, and this meant a great deal to some people. When the club rejected expansion proposals in 1977, USTA president Slew Hester decided to move the tournament to a newer, bigger home.

Louis Armstrong Stadium, the centerpiece of the National Tennis Center, is a bowl of epic proportions; its sheer sides give over 20,000 spectators a dizzying view of the main court. But the finest court at the site is in the grandstand, which nestles against one side of the stadium in much the same way that the Number One Court nestles against the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Sunken about ten feet below ground level, the court is surrounded on three sides by seats for about 6,000 spectators, who lean in over the players like aficionados around a bullring.
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2015 US Open coverage

2015 US Open

Relive some of the best moments in the US Open history and follow our coverage on Tennis Buzz:

If you attend the Open and wish to share your stories or pictures, please leave us a comment below.

Fashion and gear:

A trip down memory lane:

Top 5 strange events at the US Open
US Open biggest upsets
1970 US Open: Margaret Court completes the Grand Slam
1971 US Open: Chris Evert becomes the “It Girl”
1972 US Open: Ilie Nastase defeats Arthur Ashe
1973 US Open: Margaret Court defeats Evonne Goolagong
1978: the US Open moves to Flushing Meadows
1978 US Open: 4th consecutive US Open title for Chris Evert
1978 US Open: Jimmy Connors defeats Bjorn Borg
79 US Open 2nd round: McEnroe vs Nastase, chaos on court
1979 US Open: John McEnroe defeats Vitas Gerulaitis
1980 US Open: John McEnroe defeats Bjorn Borg
1981 US Open: Tracy Austin defeats Martina Navratilova
1981 US Open: John McEnroe defeats Bjorn Borg: Borg’s last Grand Slam match
1983 US Open: Career Grand Slam for Martina Navratilova
1984 US Open: John McEnroe last Grand Slam title
1990 US Open: Linda Ferrando upsets Monica Seles
1990 US Open: Alexander Volkov upsets Stefan Edberg
1990 US Open, the spitting incident
1991 US Open: Connors, 39 qualifies for the semifinals
1991 US Open: Seles and Capriati introduce power in womens tennis
1991: Monica Seles first US Open title
1991 US Open: playing to perfection, Edberg grabs first Open
1991 US Open: Edberg’s final dominance doesn’t diminish Courier
1992: Stefan Edberg defeats Pete Sampras
1992 US Open: Edberg takes Sampras, US Open, No.1 ranking
1993 US Open: Pete Sampras defeats Cédric Pioline
1994 US Open 4th round: Jaime Yzaga defeats Pete Sampras
1994: first US Open title for Andre Agassi
1995: Pete Sampras defeats Andre Agassi
1996 US Open: Class act Edberg making one last run at US Open
2001 US Open: Venus defeats sister Serena
2001 US Open QF: Andre Agassi – Pete Sampras
2001 US Open: Lleyton Hewitt defeats Pete Sampras
2002 US Open: last Grand Slam title for Pete Sampras
2004 US Open: First time to NYC for a French fan of Agassi
2005 US Open: Roger Federer defeats Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi gives the Open crowd one more thrill ride, August 31st, 2006

Reports:

Polls:

Who will win the 2015 US Open?

  • Roger Federer (47%, 74 Votes)
  • Novak Djokovic (28%, 44 Votes)
  • Rafael Nadal (10%, 15 Votes)
  • Andy Murray (8%, 12 Votes)
  • Stan Wawrinka (3%, 4 Votes)
  • Other (2%, 3 Votes)
  • Kei Nishikori (1%, 2 Votes)
  • Tomas Berdych (1%, 2 Votes)
  • David Ferrer (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Marin Cilic (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Milos Raonic (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 156

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Will Roger Federer win another Grand Slam title before the end of his career?

View Results

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Who will win the 2015 US Open?

  • Serena Williams (70%, 63 Votes)
  • Maria Sharapova (9%, 8 Votes)
  • Other (8%, 7 Votes)
  • Simona Halep (7%, 6 Votes)
  • Lucie Safarova (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Ana Ivanovic (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Caroline Wozniacki (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Garbine Muguruza (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Petra Kvitova (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Karolina Pliskova (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Carla Suarez Navarro (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 90

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Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon 1975

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.

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