What Would Arthur Do? A Recent Book Brings Ashe Front and Center

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By Michael Mewshaw

Had he not died tragically of AIDS, Arthur Ashe would be 72. Still, many of his contemporaries are active in the game. Naturally, one wonders whether Ashe would be involved in pro tennis were he alive. But before considering what he might have become, it’s heartening to recall what he was, and Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era by Eric Allen Hall provides an invaluable resource. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, it’s a solidly researched book.

While it doesn’t break new ground, it conscientiously covers old ground which, regardless of its frequent retelling, holds universal appeal.

A child of the segregated south, Ashe grew up in Richmond, Virginia. His father was the maintenance man at a blacks-only recreational center, and long before Arthur learned to play tennis there, his father “taught his son to work hard, avoid selfishness and not challenge the racial hierarchy.” His mother’s early death was a formative event, leaving Arthur with an aversion to emotional outbursts and loss of control. His tennis mentor, Robert Walter Johnson, stressed that Arthur should ignore bad calls and race-baiting. Displaying calmness on-court and off, he developed a Zen-like ability to achieve his goals—i.e. to compete against whites in previously restricted tournaments—and win against increasingly gifted players. When he attended UCLA, his coach J.D. Morgan provided emotional and technical support, but again emphasized that Ashe’s tennis would suffer if he became entangled in racial politics.

Never inclined toward radical protest, Arthur positioned himself between extremists of the left and the right, resisting those who called him an Uncle Tom and those who tried to turn him into one. His understanding of injustices deepened, however, at home and in the wider world where tennis took him. Intellectually curious and an omnivorous reader, he believed in studying the issues before advocating action. As Hall notes, he was a “quietist,” a “gradualist,” a “pragmatist,” and this annoyed critics who expected him to be as forceful as his serve or as flamboyant as his backhand. But instead of making showy statements, he carefully calculated what was required to win. The best example: his clever 1975 Wimbledon upset of Jimmy Connors, when he re-geared his game and won with off-speed shots, dinks and lobs. (Peter Bodo has just published an excellent book, Ashe vs. Connors: Wimbledon 1975, devoted entirely to this match.)

Ashe’s approach was the same whether he was fighting racism in America or apartheid in South Africa. He kept his own counsel, examined the debate from all sides, and reached conclusions based on what he viewed as reason rather than impulse. He served as a founding member of the ATP, was a US Davis Cup coach, and founded key groups to promote tennis in inner cities, education and AIDS awareness. He admitted that he was slow to support the civil rights movement and he had an ingrained resistance to feminism. To read his early comments about women’s tennis and equal prize money is a bit like reading George Wallace’s fulminations against integration. But he evolved under the influence of his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe to call Billie Jean King “the most important tennis player, male or female” in the past fifty years.

This evolution paralleled his response when he contracted AIDS. At first, he kept his condition secret, but once it became public knowledge, he joined others, including Magic Johnson, in raising awareness of the disease and raising money to find a way to control it. Also a strong advocate for the rights of Haitian immigrants, he was arrested in front of the White House. It’s difficult to picture any contemporary player comporting himself with such courage and commitment, and supporting causes that might undercut his career.

So if Arthur had lived, how would he fit into tennis today? At the very least, he would be fighting for systemic reform. As early as 1982, Ashe declared that the day tennis legalized guarantees was the day he would leave. Now guarantees are common and so are the practices Ashe believed they encouraged—tanking, tax fraud, prize money splitting and what he characterized as “collusion” to protect top-ranked players. One can imagine he’d bristle at the recent capitulation to Rafa Nadal’s demand that Carlos Bernardes not officiate his matches. And certainly Ashe would be a fierce advocate for education and programs to increase diversity in tennis. So while Hall’s book is a salutary reminder of what Ashe meant to tennis, it’s also a commentary on how the game, in some ways, still falls short of his hopes for it.

Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books, among them Short Circuit: Borg, McEnroe and Connors—the Era of Bribes, Match-Fixing and Drugs.