As anybody that knows me knows, tennis is a central activity in my current life and a part of it to varying degrees since 1968, the year that the singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles US National Championships for both genders were combined into one tournament and professionals were allowed to compete with the amateurs. (The renamed tournament is the juggernaut and extravaganza known since then as the US Open.)
It was watching Arthur Ashe play – and win – that first US Open that made me pick up tennis that Fall of 1968, shortly before I turned 17. (For perspective, in 1989, Michael Chang WON the French Open AT age 17….) Seeing someone non-white playing at that level changed my perception of the game: it felt accessible.
There are few professional athletes who merit being called “heroes”, and Ashe is one of those few for his dignity, grace, and how he lived before and after the accidental infection with the AIDS virus that caused his early death. When he was diagnosed, I sent him a letter expressing my gratitude for the impact he had in my life. (It was hand-delivered by Christine Beck, who ran the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Phila.)
The book in the photo -“Levels of the Game” – is generally considered one of the best “sports” books precisely because it transcends the genre. Through its account of the semi-finals match between Ashe and Clark Graebner during that first US Open, it chronicles and the contrasts the opponents’ backgrounds. McPhee is a superb writer – Pulitzer winner in 1998 for “Annals of the Former World” about the geology of the United States – who has elevated into Literature (with a capital “L”) non-fiction pieces “about” real people. The prose is sparing and elegant, mirroring how a point is played at the highest levels: no extra or wasted word/step, each sentence/stroke built on the previous, its purpose firmly in focus in the mind’s eye. Nowhere else will one find a better description of a tennis match combined with an incisive sketch into the contestants. Read it.
I don’t recollect how my father came to also pick up a racket, but the game became a shared interest, of which we didn’t have any prior to tennis. While I was self-taught, from basic strokes to strategy, I believe that he had played before, during his college years in Beijing in the 1930s.
We had two years as regular doubles partners playing pick-up games at the public courts in Highland Park, NJ, before I left for college. Since I don’t cringe at the memory, we must have gotten along on the court, no small achievement for any father-son pairing. While we won our fair share of those matches, that tells me little about the quality of our playing. I never asked him what he thought of my game. After high school, in the Summers that I was home, he would wake me at 7:00 a.m. on weekends to play, which I did dutifully but protestingly then, but would do gladly now.
Tennis created a common ground, not just with my father, but also with my mother, who also got into the sport, though only as a spectator. It was both amusing and amazing to see how conversant she became about the top players of the 1970s and 1980s, but it took me a few years to see a pattern to her conversations about tennis. While comments about the players du jour would be followed by contrasting and comparing the greats of those years – Evert, Navratilova, Casals, Smith (both Margaret Court and Stan), Rosewall, Laver, etc. – and the expected indignation at Connors and McEnroe’s behaviors, the conversation always circled back to Arthur Ashe. Her tone was almost reverent, with a touch of awe and incredulity, the words focusing equally on his game on the court and his gentlemanly qualities off of it. She liked his poise, his intelligence as a player (clearly demonstrated by his winning strategy against Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final), and his soft-spoken demeanor and general humility.
I owe Ashe an aspect of my life that brought great people and great experiences into it, on and off the court.
This is a Arthur Ashe Head Competition tennis-racket cover with his autograph (“Peace, Arthur Ashe”) that I found unexpectedly this Summer at a tennis memorabilia show and purchased. In the 1970s, both my father and I played with the model for which this was the cover.