THE 12 GREATEST LETTERS IN TENNIS HISTORY

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Photo of Althea Gibson courtesy of Getty Images

Serena Williams’ proud and poignant letter to her mother brought to mind our 2014 feature, “The 12 Greatest Letters in Tennis History.” Here it is:

In our Twitter world of 140 characters or less, traditional letters are so very old-school. Rather boring, wouldn’t you say? But think again. Even now, letters can be an art form, a powerful way to touch hearts and influence minds. And they have long been part of the tennis landscape. Here are the twelve most notable or poignant tennis letters ever written.

1. Alice Marble and the Day the Wall Crumbled:

In 1950, our sport had a problem.

Tennis was white – all-white and nothing but white. But the best young prospect in the game – Althea Gibson, a lanky kid from Harlem, who dominated when she was allowed to play – was black.

Enter Alice Marble, fearless and San Francisco-sassy. A World War II spy who had been the world’s best player, Marble became the first prominent person to take on tennis’ longstanding policy of excluding African-Americans. In a July, 1950 letter to American Lawn Tennis Magazine, she denounced the game’s all-white policy and the upcoming ban of Gibson from playing the US Nationals.

She contended, “Unless something within the realm of the supernatural occurs, Miss Gibson will not be permitted to play…[but] if tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to…players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts…If she is refused a chance to succeed or to fail, then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly disappointed…I tan very heavily…but I doubt that anyone ever questioned my right to play in the Nationals because of it, Margaret du Pont collects a few freckles – but who ever thought to omit her name…The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it has proven to be in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent…I’ve never met Miss Gibson but…she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.”

The press and the federation of African-American players, the American Tennis Federation, immediately picked up on Marble’s plea, and later that summer, Althea played the US Nationals.

Tennis’ wall of racial separation had crumbled. Gibson became a great player who set the table for names like Ashe, Garrison, McNeil, Washington, Blake, Venus, Serena and Stephens. Some table – hey.

But Marble soon faced political pressures, insults and a home burglary. With this in mind, Gibson wrote Marble, saying she read her letter “with a mixed feeling of sorrow and elation…I am elated over the opportunity I had to play, but I’m sorry for the slurs you received and the friends you lost…[but] I feel the friends you gained who believe in fair play and democracy will outnumber the few old ones you lost…We [African-Americans] do not want to socialize, but we do want to improve our tennis…Not a single player…voiced any objection…Then why do some officials object? I do believe we are going to see many changes.”

No kidding.

Writer Bruce Schoenfeld noted that Marble’s letter “changed the history of the sport. In a small way, it also changed the course of American history…Perhaps blacks would ultimately play in the US championships, just as they eventually integrated the NBA, the Augusta National Golf Club, and the modern incarnation of the United States Senate. But without Marble, it certainly wouldn’t have happened in 1950.”

2. Arthur Ashe’s Farewell Letter to His Daughter Camera:

Arthur Ashe, the conscience of our sport, died at 49. Well aware of his fate, he wrote his young daughter Camera perhaps the most poignant letter in sports history.

In Ashe’s compelling biography Days of Grace, written with Arnold Ampersand, Ashe tells his young daughter that he is writing in hopes that her recollections of him will never fade.

The letter was composed just as Ashe was watching the late Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clonton’s 1993 inauguration. Ashe praises Angelou’s beauty and admits, “Tears came to my eyes as I watched her conjure up symbols and allusions generations old in the African American world, as she sought…to challenge humanity to do better.”

Ashe reminds Camera that he was brought up in the South, “where so many other black folk have lived in slavery and freedom,” and proceeds on a touching journey, imbued with grace, in which he reflects on the nature of change; contends that the worst effect of slavery was the destruction of the African-American family; and asserts that, even now, in order to survive, we have to “fight and sway.”

Ashe says that if he could give Camera one gift, it would be a life without discrimination. But he concedes he can’t do that. She will just have to deal with it. He tells her, “because of the color of your skin and the fact that you are a girl, your credibility and competence will constantly be questioned.” Racism and sexism will probably always be around, but Camera must never use them as an excuse – rather, she must “try to rise above them.”

Ashe then tells his daughter he has long been moved by poetry and art, which he says are just as important as money. He contends, “Art comes from an urge as primal as that of survival itself.”

Ashe accepts that he might not be there for Camera when she most needs him, but tells her, “Don’t be angry with me…I would like nothing more than to be with you always. Do not feel sorry for me…I loved you deeply and you gave me so much.” Then, in a manner reminiscent of Tom Joad’s farewell speech in The Grapes of Wrath, Ashe assures Camera, “wherever I am when you feel sick at heart and weary of life, or when you stumble and fall and don’t know if you can get back up again, think of me. I will be watching and smiling and cheering you on.”

3. The Godfather Who Shaped Tennis:

He smoked Turkish cigarettes, wore white flannels, sported a white helmet and toted a white umbrella around the All-England Croquet Club in the 1870s and 80s, and according to the London Times, he imposed a “brusque manner to those whom he believed were his inferiors.” Some claim Englishman David Jones – called “the Godfather of Lawn Tennis” – was “the most important figure of all” in tennis history. Yes, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield introduced modern tennis. But it was Jones who refined and popularized it. A full-time writer about games, Jones penned a series of letters to The Field: The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper, beginning in 1874. Through them and his role as the driving force at Wimbledon, he made sense of Wingfield’s odd game, replacing its nonsensical rules with protocols that exist to this day. He pushed to change the size and shape of the court, the height of the net, the location of the service line, and got the All-England Croquet Club to accept tennis, to start the Wimbledon championship, and to include a women’s tournament. Plus, according to eminent historian Richard Hallway, he wrote a letter to The Field in 1878 advocating the scoring system we now know so well, which “made the sport more exciting with a series of separate battles instead of one continuous war…[The] game needed guidance, and Jones…guided Wingfield’s lawn tennis through one change after another until it had become, essentially, our modern game.”

4. Larry King – The Founding Father of Women’s Tennis:

The pioneering troika of Billie Jean King, World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman and corporate angel Joe Kohlman are celebrated as the founders of modern women’s tennis. But there was another groundbreaker in the picture. Larry King, then Billie Jean’s husband, had done some promoting, and in 1969, he was in the army when he looked at the fast-changing tennis scene. With the arrival of open tennis, the men’s game was about to soar. But women’s tennis – unorganized and adrift – was trending downward. Something had to be done, and as Billie Jean contended, “Larry always has he best ideas.”

So, at his Indiana army base, King wrote seven players and Heldman a 12-page letter calling for the creation of a women’s circuit run by the players. It included “a concrete, positive proposal designed to…prevent the demise of women’s tennis.”

King contended that “women have tended to tag along after the men…because of a weighty inferiority complex. Psychologically, the women will be more effective when they have more confidence…You should have an interest in…controlling your destinies.”

King’s letter outlines options for assorted circuits, including a six-week campaign in which the winner would pocket $5,000 and fist-round losers would get $250 and be required to go to future sites and promote the new tour. There would be just eight players, and they would own the circuit.

King unabashedly noted, “The women have to sell themselves to a predominantly male audience…All of you will make a nice living, providing you play well and are nice to the right people.” A year later, modern women’s tennis was born. And this September at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, when a woman is given a check for between three and four million dollars, some might recall Billie Jean’s long-ago claim, “Larry always has the best ideas.”

5. The Bolshevik at the Baseline:

We now take the tiebreaker for granted. But in 1959, Jimmy Van Alen – the 14th richest man in America, who was known as “the Newport Bolshevik,” wrote a letter to World Tennis Magazine detailing an arcane scoring system that included a nine-point tiebreak. It eventually morphed into the 12-point tiebreak we know so well.

6. Chrissie to Serena – Shape Up:

Players have long known that discipline and focus are absolutely essential. But not Serena Williams. Chris Evert didn’t like it and, as the publisher of Tennis magazine, she wrote an open letter to Serena in 2006, noting that in 2002 and 2203, Serena looked “utterly dominant” and seemed en route to becoming the best of all time.

Yet designing diversions and the allure of Tinseltown seemed to be taking Serena off-task. She had won only one of the last seven Slams she had played. Chris conceded there was value in being well-rounded, but then asked the 24-year-old, “Do you ever consider your place in history?…I wonder whether 20 years from now you might…regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis…You’re simply too good not to be winning two grand Slam titles a year…Why not dedicate yourself entirely…I don’t see how acting and designing clothes can compare with the pride of being the best tennis player…If you’re completely happy with the way your life is, then crumple up this letter and throw it away.”

Serena insisted that she didn’t read the letter, but said Chris reaching out was “pretty cool.” Evert recently told IT, “Serena’s had the last laugh. She’s had all her business ventures, made a lot of money, gone to school, had fun, and has Hollywood friends. This is a woman who’s lived a full life, who’s very multi-dimensional…She did buckle down…With everyone saying the same thing, my letter put a seed in her mind and she committed herself.” And, by the way, Chrissie recently contended that Serena “is really the greatest player” of all time.

7. Andre Agassi – The High School Dropout Who Became a Man of Letters:

Andre Agassi was a ninth-grade dropout. But who, besides Arthur Ashe, has had a career so filled with letters? As a teen, he was shipped off to Nick Bollettieri’s tennis factory, where the charismatic coach molded him into a Wimbledon champ. But after failing to defend his Wimbledon title in 1993, Andre consulted John McEnroe. Barbra Streisand entered the picture, and Nick, feeling distant and apart, suddenly exited by simply sending him a letter. A stunned Andre briefly looked at it and tossed it away.

Years later, Bollettieri said leaving Andre that way was a large mistake. At first, Agassi was livid. He would describe Bollettieri’s academy as a kind of hell-house prison, saying Nick’s impact on a match was “insignificant…His knowledge of the game is limited….He never taught me anything about strategy, but he can sell himself.”

But years later, Andre wrote Bollettieri to say, “I can’t imagine what a handful I must have been.” He thanked Nick for giving him “the space to grow and experiment…and [for] providing an umbrella of protection as I fell under the glare of the international spotlight…It was you and me against the world.”

Agassi also wrote a series of grateful letters, to is father, who he said had “a dream and a fire in his gut”; to his mom, who was at times the only one who could “make [my] world feel right-side up”; and to his life guide, Gil Reyes, in which he asked, “How can one man be so strong, yet so tender? How can a man be of so few words, but be overflowing with wisdom?” As for Bollettieri, Andre wrote, “You lived and breathed tennis, and created an unparalleled generation of champions.”

And then there was his letter to Steffi Graf. At first he wrote her that he just wanted to get to know her. Later, he penned the most stunning love letter in tennis history.

“Dear Stefanie, Thank you for giving me your love so freely, so generously…I feel empowered; with you I believe anything is possible. I feel valued; you care not only deeply, but in such detail [that] it’s breathtaking to be on the receiving end of your love…I rely on it like the air I breathe. I not only need to be with you, I want to be more like you. To have such honest values, and to live by them with consistency and grace…In my eyes…you have no rival.”

8. The Man Who Saved Doubles:

Upbeat and cheery, Wayne Bryan is tennis’ most benign cheerleader. But if you do him wrong, watch out. Bob and Mike’s papa morphs into a fierce advocate who doesn’t hesitate to craft intense letters calling for more Americans in collegiate tennis, or countering the Ten and Under initiative. Nowhere was he more effective than in 2005, when he opposed moves that would have gutted doubles on the ATP tour. He wrote ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers, “You are bright, you are wise…You like music, you eat pizza, and you drink Coke. I can tell from your email that you are a warm and kind human being…It is obvious that you are a great executive and big time international promoter…[but] before the door is slammed shut in our faces, can I…[make] one last shout out into the wind before the hurricane engulfs us. Before the tanks drive over our collective faces.”

Bryan went on to oppose “shortened/bastardized/silly scoring,” and issued a “Doubles Bill of Rights.” Without his passionate letters and advocacy, pro doubles would not be the prominent, user-friendly sport so many enjoy today.

9. Stand By Your Man:

When Pete Sampras lost early at Wimbledon in 2002, sages whispered, “It’s over – when’s he going to retire?” Clearly age, marriage and pending fatherhood had diminished his fire. Later, even Sampras confided he “started believing all the negative stuff.”

An intervention was needed. Enter Pete’s actress wife, Bridgette Wilson, who wrote her man a still-largely-secret inspirational note that said Pete should, “Forget about all that crap. Remember who you are.” She insisted, “Don’t listen…Stop on your own terms. Just promise me that.”

Pete said Bridgette was “just saying that she was proud of me, and I’ve worked hard to get here, and to take it to him [Andre Agassi]…Right before I walked out [for the 2002 US Open final]. I read it…It was nice to step away and appreciate my wife…It’s nice having those notes…at the right time or the right place.” With the note tucked away in his bag, Sampras won his 14th Slam. Soon after, he would become a father and retire. Sampras concluded that Bridgette “reminded me who I am and…[that] meeting my wife was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

10. ‘The Jimmy Connors I Fell in Love With’:

Jimmy Connors’ grandmother and coach Brenda “Two-Mom” Thompson liked to write to Jimmy. “Throughout my career,” Connors explains in The Outsider, “I carried notes from her in my socks, and I read them before every match [or] if I ever found myself in trouble while playing. I wasn’t ever embarrassed to pull out those slips of paper. At any time…you have to be able to go back to the basics. Take the ball early…keep your eye on the ball.” After Two-Mom died, Connors played the 1975 Wimbledon final with a tear-stained letter from her inside a plastic bag in his sock, which prompted his former fiancee Chris Evert to say, “That’s he Jimmy I fell in love with.”

11. I Loved You Brother:

A poem by Don Mattera – the street fighter turned banned liberation poet – was snuck to Arthur Ashe as he was leaving South Africa. It read:

I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step evolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the reins of tolerance
And patience.
Your youthful face,
A mask,
Hiding a pining, anguished spirit,
And I loved you brother –
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul,
Trained to be rebuked or summoned….

12: Don’t Horse Around – Memories of Maureen:

Long before Switzerland began giving Federer cows, San Diego’s Junior Chamber of Commerce gave Maureen Connolly – their international darling – a horse. In October, 1952, Connolly wrote, “Finally got my horse – a Tennessee Walker, a beautiful animal. He is a sorrel roan with flaxen mane and tail, four white stockings, and a blaze down the front of his face. Get up at 6:30 every morn…Amazing, huh?…Won’t be touching a racquet ’till November when I’m traipsing down to Aussie land.” Connolly promptly won Australia en route to becoming the first women to win the Grand Slam. But sadly, Maureen’s horse – the ill-named Colonel Merryboy – tossed her one morning. Connolly broke her leg, a career vanished, and tennis history was tilted.

NOTEWORTHY:

• There is no other genre of letter-writing quite like the enraged, self-righteous and opinionated letters to the editors of London’s papers every year during Wimbledon, in which incensed readers rail against grunting, spitting, sweaty towels, the loss of sartorial standards, naughty language and anything and everything that is not tidy and proper. The basic message here: Don’t mess with good ‘ol Victorian standards.

• After ending Britain’s 77-year-old drought at Wimbledon, Andy Murray got a congratulatory letter from Queen Elizabeth.

• Assorted letters were at the center of the debates on the creation of open tennis, the formation of the ATP, and the ATP boycott of Wimbledon in 1973.

• Years ago, a young South African junior wrote Billie Jean King’s coach Frank Brennan Sr. that she admired Billie Jean, and wanted to play just like her and to meet her. Eventually, she did meet Billie, and the former junior, Ilana Kloss, has now been King’s partner for over 30 years.

• After his coach Jelena Gencic died, Novak Djokovic wrote a letter read aloud at her funeral that said, “I will speak your name to future generations, and your spirit will live on.”

 

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