- - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

By Eric Allen Hall
Johns Hopkins University Press, $34.95, 331 pages, illustrated

The flags in Richmond, Va., flew at half-staff on Feb. 9, 1993, as crowds of residents, black and white, lined the streets to pay their final respects to one of the city’s most famous sons, tennis professional Arthur Ashe.

He had come a long way.

Tennis was not on the radar for most Americans when a skinny black kid began winning junior tournaments in the Richmond area. Tennis, in the words of one wag, was a game where white men dressed in white chased a white ball. Ashe’s father, the caretaker at a black-oriented rec center, recognized his son’s talent and worked to enter him in tournaments traditionally reserved for whites.

Ashe caught the eye of a Lynchburg, Va., physician, Dr. Robert Johnson, who became his first mentor. Ashe would recall later how Johnson had taught him “to ignore racism directed at him as a person.”

Ashe’s next stop was UCLA, where he had a scholarship and became a protege of tennis coach J.D. Morgan. Ashe had a fast serve, an overwhelming net game, and a fluid backhand. Only his forehand at times appeared wobbly. “When Ashe wasn’t on the tennis court” writes Eric Allen Hall, a Georgia historian, “he spent the little free time that he had studying, hanging out with his friends, [and] fulfilling the obligations of his scholarship.” In 1963, Ashe became the first black American to be selected for the American Davis Cup team.

Ashe’s participation in UCLA’s ROTC program required him to put in three years with the U.S. Army after graduation. Whereas one black celebrity, Muhammad Ali, had denounced the Vietnam War and fought the draft, Ashe — despite some doubts about Vietnam — fulfilled his ROTC commitment. It was not strenuous duty. Ashe was granted leave to play in important tournaments, and in 1966 and 1967, he reached the finals of the Australian Open, only to fall victim to Roy Emerson.

The year 1968 brought stardom. Tennis held its first “open” championship — open to both pros and amateurs — that year, and Ashe, an unpaid amateur, beat Dutch pro Tom Okker in the final. Later that year, he led the U.S. Davis Cup team to victory over Australia, returning the Cup to the United States for the first time in five years. He finished the year ranked second in the world, behind Rod Laver.

Ashe was uncomfortable with issues of race, but as the world’s most prominent black tennis player, he could hardly avoid them. He asked a friend, rhetorically, “Is it possible to be a tennis player first and a black man second? It has to be. If I put the priorities the other way, I’ll be a poor tennis player and, therefore, a less effective black man.”

Ashe found his voice on the issue of apartheid. In 1970, he was twice denied a visa to play tennis in South Africa because of his “general antagonism” toward the regime. In 1973, however, South Africa — eager to rejoin the Olympics — reversed its decision and granted Ashe his visa. Thus Ashe “won” his confrontation with the government, but he later concluded that he had been wrong to play in South Africa absent any change in government policy.

Ashe was not a knee-jerk liberal. He engaged in a memorable feud with Billie Jean King over the question of whether prize money in tennis for women should equal that for the men. He told one reporter, “Men are playing tennis for a living now. They have families, and they don’t want to give up money just for girls to play.”

On the court, Ashe’s results fluctuated wildly. He was increasingly challenged by a new generation of players — among them Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. At the same time, the on-court behavior of Ashe’s abrasive rivals set into bold relief Ashe’s cool, correct demeanor. Ashe may have been controversial among black activists, but he became an icon to many club players, black and white.

Ashe’s finest year was probably 1975, when he won Wimbledon in a memorable upset. Ashe, then 32, made it to the final, but there faced Mr. Connors, who was at the peak of his game and who had not lost a set en route to the final. Ashe shelved his normal power game in favor of slices, dinks and deft volleys, and dismantled his nemesis in four sets.

Ashe played on for a few more years, but an injury to his left heel required surgery and took him off the circuit. There was worse to come. In 1979, he suffered a heart attack that required quadruple bypass surgery. Four years later, he underwent additional surgery involving a transfusion of blood that was later found to be tainted.

Tests revealed that Ashe was HIV positive, and soon he was diagnosed with AIDS. He and his wife, Jeanne, sought to keep his illness private, but in April 1992 rumors about his health led him to acknowledge that he was afflicted with AIDS. He devoted the remaining year of his life to educating the public about the disease.

Mr. Hall quotes Washington Post columnist Barry Lorge in assessing Ashe’s career: “In a sport overpopulated with crybabies and greedy opportunists,” wrote Lorge, Ashe “became a millionaire without ever forgetting his responsibility to the public and the game.”

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean, where he plays tennis somewhat less skillfully than Arthur Ashe did.

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