At weddings or at Presidential inaugurations, at feel good parties or in solitary moments of reflection, Aretha Franklin touched so many in so many ways. And she loved tennis and had her impact.
When after 15 problematic years of boycotting the wonderful Indian Wells tournament, Venus Williams finally returned. And, as she proudly walked out on court, the PA system played “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Why not? There are few greater anthems to dignity.
Over nearly 40 years, celebrities have been incredibly kind and generous towards me. But no other star was more welcoming then Aretha. It wasn’t just that when we chatted, she asked me, “how you doing, how you feeling.” It was more how Aretha looked me directly in the eye and made me feel so comfortable.
In 2007, the Queen of Soul had just thrilled an adoring US Open crowd that was honoring the pioneer Althea Gibson. After she sang, I sat down the Queen whose father was a Detroit minister who was close to Martin Luther King.
Her passing today at age 76, of course, brought to mind Inside Tennis’ interview with her.
What is is that Althea Gibson showed us in her heart?
She showed the spirit of perseverance, and going all-out, going after what you want. She was a true champion. It was only a matter of time before her talents revealed themselves.
Have you ever heard any of Althea Gibson’s songs?
I didn’t know she had any songs.
She was a singer and performer in nightclubs. I believe she sang “Strange Fruit,” and she recorded an album in ’59,
Are you sure you don’t mean Billie Holiday?
I’m speaking of Althea.
I never heard that in all these years.
There are so many names that have emerged out of the civil rights era. Is there something that drew out the very best in some people?
That generation just took the brunt of things that were not right. They were just determined to move forward, move their families and children forward as much as possible – not only for African Americans, but for all people, the way Dr. King was, and that was the way my father was.
How would Dr. King feel tonight?
I think he would be absolutely delighted. I can just hear him saying, “What a wonderful night, what a wonderful night.”
During the civil rights movement there were many who worked directly on the issue like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. What was the role of the athletes like Jackie Robinson, Althea and Arthur Ashe?
They certainly were the front runners. They were men and women of courage who stepped out in spite of the adversity they knew they would face and represented themselves as well as the African-American community.
Did you know Arthur Ashe?
Yes. I met him briefly. He signed a poster for me. And, of course, I watched him and knew that he was the Davis Cup captain. I watched him play a lot. I watched him win Wimbledon. That was one great day.
Venus and Serena are strong competitors. What makes them unique?
I think they’re wonderful. The fact that they’re sisters is just delightful. The fact that their father [Richard] has brought them along so far – I would love to see more men involved with their children. Their mother [Oracene] does an absolutely wonderful, wonderful job, but men make champions.
Regarding “Respect,” do you think there is a respect for the many African-American athletes?
Yes. I think there is a very broad spectrum of respect happening in the world of tennis. I’ve loved it for many years – all the way back to Billie Jean and Rosie Casals, Chrissie Evert, Ilie Nastase, oh so many of them.
Wow, you seem to know your tennis. What is that you love about the sport – its grace, the expression of personality? The one-on-one –
Yes. I like the grace of it. I like the skill, to see who is going to outmaneuver the other. I love the little tennis outfits that Chrissie used to wear with the little frilly panties, that kind of thing. I’ve been loving it a long time.
And Aretha, if there were just one player you could go out and see play, who would that be?
It would be Evonne Goolagong. I go a long way back.