Among the tennistrophies arrayed in the living room of the Ashe home in Richmond, Va. is adecree attesting—quite officially, with one pompous "whereas" afteranother—to the honors and attributes of Arthur Ashe Jr. (see cover) and to thefame that he has brought to his native city. The house, marked for demolitionnow, is at the edge of Brookfield Park, a Negro playground where Arthur AsheSr. is guardian and caretaker. The park includes two major recreationalfacilities, though one of them, a pool, no longer holds any water. Richmond, inanother, but less inspired, moment declared that it was better to empty all itspools than to permit the races to cool off together.
About midwaybetween the wasted pool and the warm words on the living-room wall is thetennis court where the young man who may someday be the best player in theworld started to learn the game. Somehow he also learned to endure thecapriciousness of a time that so arbitrarily gives and takes from his race. Heis the only Negro player in a white tennis world. He is very easy to spot. Buthe sometimes has difficulty finding himself, for he must also serve as animage, that of the American Dream, minority division. Further, because of hisunique status, he is invariably pestered by fawning Negroes whom he does notknow and by patronizing whites keen to display their latent brotherhood nowthat they have a colored boy right here at the club.
It is a difficultrole for a 23-year-old, but Ashe bears it all with ease. "His head is notbig enough," says Dr. Walter Johnson, an old coach and friend. "Hetries to be too accommodating and popular with everyone." Nevertheless,were Ashe not possessed of mature balance and a discerning appreciation of theironies about him, it is not likely that he ever would have become the 100thplayer in the nation, much less the best or second best. It is often thatwhites—whether out of condescension or sincerity—say of him: "There wouldbe no race trouble if all Negroes were like Arthur Ashe." But the completeresponse is: there would be no race trouble if all people were like ArthurAshe.
Ashe's qualities,such as his stability, have derived from a large reservoir of family strength.His development has been further enhanced by able advisers at every level.Still, the prime influence remains his father, a proud man with a deep sense ofhonor. Arthur Ashe Sr., 47, is stocky and slightly Oriental-looking, with aphilosophy to match: "No one will care a hundred years from now." Ithelped to sustain him through a deprived childhood and the loss of a wife. Thatthe philosophy is not lost on Arthur Jr. helps explain why he can so easilyaccept victory or defeat in a mere tennis game with apparent equanimity.
August 28, 1966
Ashe evidences solittle concern when he plays that he is often accused of being lazy, of simplynot caring. "I've heard it so often that I'm beginning to believe itmyself," he says. His coaches disagree. George MacCall and Pancho Gonzalez,the U.S. Davis Cup Team captain and coach, and J.D. Morgan, the UCLA athleticdirector and former tennis coach, all marvel at Ashe's ability to pace himself.Morgan also notes that Ashe shows at least some emotion on the court now. Whenhe first arrived at college he was much too shy and introverted.
But Ashe isalways trying to check himself. "No matter how tense I am inside," hesays, "I will never blow up on the court. If you want to know, I'm just tooconscious of the effect it might have on my image. Wait, next question: And doyou worry about your image, Arthur? You're damn right I do."
It is ridiculousthat there should be any debate at all on the question of whether Ashe's courtconduct is too restrained. After all, Americans have suffered far too long withpetulant young tennis tigers. But people just like to worry about Arthur. Theyare particularly determined to know if he has that great American athleticvirtue, the fire that is supposed to separate the men from the boys. That is,the killer instinct. Everybody who boosts Arthur says you bet he has the killerinstinct. Kid from a minority, had to fight his way up, may look loose outthere, but such determination.
"Killerinstinct? O.K., let's be hypothetical," Ashe says, tilting up the glassesthat he wears most of the time off the court. "O.K., it's the Davis Cup.Challenge Round, Australia. Uh-huh. Two matches apiece. O.K., and I'm playingEmerson. Do I have a killer instinct? No. Sorry, I just don't have a killerinstinct. I play the game. That's me. I give it all I've got—people are wrongabout that—but if it's not enough I figure they'll just get someoneelse."
His demeanor onthe court was shaped by Dr. Johnson, a Negro general practitioner in Lynchburg,Va. who was Ashe's first coach away from Brookfield. To limit controversy ashis players broke color lines, Dr. Johnson invoked rules of tennis nonviolencelong before such strategy became a widely employed device. He instructed Arthurand his other young charges to play balls hit an inch or so out by opponents asif they were good shots, and he told them to smile at their mistakes. Ashestill does. It drives teeth-gritting, racket-throwing opponents to distraction."They think I must be goofy," Arthur says.
Arthur wasdiscovered at Brookfield by Ronald Charity, a part-time playground instructorwho is now a partner in CJL Associates, a successful public-relations firm inRichmond. Charity remembers: "It was difficult to tell whether Arthur wasdragging the racket or the racket was dragging Arthur, but he was soon soobviously good that I arranged to have him go to Dr. Johnson's for a summer. Itwas one place a Negro could get teaching and good competition."
In spite of hislimited means, Dr. Johnson is a true philanthropist. He has helped young Negroplayers for two decades now; National Women's Champion Althea Gibson waspreviously his most famous graduate. A bunch of them could be found thissummer, too, playing on the court next to his comfortable frame house in amixed neighborhood of Lynchburg. There were Negro boys and girls from New Yorkand Durham, N.C., from Dayton, Ohio and from right next door, and a white girland a Japanese-American girl from California. Dr. J., as they call him, putsthem up, feeds them (Arthur, Dr. J. recalls, had a weird craving for rice),teaches them and carries them around to tournaments. They practice and play onhis court—all day and even into the evening under the lights. The younger kidsfrom the neighborhood swarm about with Dr. J.'s grandchildren—into the boxbushes and the flower garden, over the jungle gym and even onto the court. Butin all this pandemonium somebody is always slugging a tennis ball. Somebody isalways learning.
It was the samesort of sticky southern summer when Arthur first came up to Lynchburg at theage of 10. "He was the youngest in the group and so skinny he looked likehe had rickets," Dr. Johnson says. Ashe was not as good or as natural asmany of the others, but he was quick, he had fast eyes and he always workedharder.
The only time heever caused any trouble was upon his arrival, when he refused to do anythingthat clashed with what Ronald Charity had taught him. Dr. Johnson calledArthur's father, who the next morning made the three-hour bus trip up into theVirginia Piedmont, through Prince Edward County and then past Appomattox toLynchburg, where he patiently explained to his son that it was Charity who hadsent him here. He might as well come home if he was not going to do what Dr.Johnson said. Arthur listened to his father. He thought it over and stayed.
"I have neveronce in all my life talked back to my father," Arthur says. "My youngerbrother, Johnny—he's in the Marines ready to go to Vietnam now—he'd questionhim sometimes, and I'd shudder. I'd feel awful if I ever did anything at allbad that my father found out about. He trusts me completely."
Ashe's mother,Mattie Cunningham Ashe, died when he was 6 following an operation. RonaldCharity remembers the lazy Sunday morning. He was sitting out by the court witha group of kids when Mr. Ashe came out of the house and called Arthur. Charitywatched the skinny little boy go to his father and then into the house withhim, where he learned the news. "Well, Daddy, as long as we'retogether," Arthur said, "everything will be all right."
Ashe Sr.maintains that nothing Arthur has done since has made him so proud. "Lookat these trophies," he says, his arm sweeping over the living room."I'd just as soon take them, the ones in the attic and that placard fromthe city, and throw them all into the junk heap if he ever did anything todisgrace me." Mr. Ashe is never just melodramatic. He took Arthur the firstday he went to the Baker Street school, ambling at his son's pace. It took 10minutes. "That gave Arthur 10 minutes to get to school and 10 minutes toget back. Not 11," he explains. "And he was never late. I never laid aswitch to him."
Mr. Ashe refusedto farm his sons out to relatives but instead brought in a housekeeper until heremarried a few years later. He was determined to have a family life, as he hadnot had as a boy, and he was keeping a promise to his wife. "It was thelast time I spoke to her," he says. "She looked up and said, *Ifanything should happen to me, Arthur, the boys are yours. I didn't born thechildren for your mother, and I didn't born them for mine. I born the childrenfor you, Arthur.' "
It is his motherthat Arthur takes after, in manner and appearance. On the mantel there is apicture of Mattie Ashe, an elegant, lovely lady in a long pink dress. Thedelicate features and the light skin are almost perfectly repeated in heroldest son. "Arthur Jr. has always been just like her," Mr. Ashe says."Timid, quiet. She wouldn't swap three words with anyone. She wouldn'targue with a soul."
Despite thisresemblance, Ashe's determination and ease, as well as his athletic ability,most surely come from his paternal forebears, especially Edward Ashe, theamazing man who was Arthur Sr.'s father. And Arthur Jr. shares something elsewith his grandfather—an ambiguous racial situation. For in a race-conscioussociety Edward Ashe had to manage as neither white nor black. He was halfAmerican Indian, half Mexican and known as Pink Ashe. "He wore a big,turned-up mustache out to here," Arthur Sr. says.
Pink Ashe wasnever fazed. He was a master carpenter and bricklayer, and such a craftsmanthat he could pick his own jobs. He was a ladies' man, possessed of a finesinging voice and an impressive capacity for whiskey. Arthur Sr. had sixbrothers and sisters, but altogether Pink Ashe fathered 27 children. Mr. Ashecan remember one afternoon when five of the other 20 children showed up out ofthe blue from Washington, D.C. in a Model T. Pink was so perturbed that hepromptly disappeared, and Mr. Ashe heard nothing of Pink until 11 years later,when Mr. Ashe walked into a revival meeting in Durham, N.C. and found hisfather singing louder than anyone else.
Arthur Jr. cannotremember the last time he got mad, but his grandfather's temper was legend."One time he was working up on a house," Mr. Ashe says, "andanother man started giving him orders. My father started coming down off thebuilding. He was whistling Nearer My God to Thee. He could whistle pretty as amockingbird. He had a piece of lumber in his hand, and he just walked up tothat fellow and hit him aside the head—all the time whistling and with theprettiest smile on his face you ever did see. Then he went back towork."
Arthur Sr. hasbeen as diligent as his father was flamboyant. He came to Richmond fromLincolnton, N.C. to work for $2.50 a week. Now, besides his city park job, hehas his own landscaping business. He has two trucks for that, a car and a21-foot motorboat, and he has just built a new house out in Louisa County withvirtually nothing but his own two hands.
Arthur Jr. is thedistillation of such conflicting strains. "The most impressive thing isthat he is so able to take things as they are," says Charlie Pasarell, hisbest friend, teammate and roommate at UCLA. "He can be absolutelyobjective. I think of Arthur as a multiracial person."
"My favoritequote is Voltaire's," Ashe says. " 'I disapprove of what you say, but Iwill defend to the death your right to say it.' " This is hardly arevelation, for Mr. Ashe reared Arthur with his own favorite homemade homily:"Respect everyone, whether they respect you or not."
"I worrysometimes that I'm too open-minded," Arthur Jr. says. "But then, beingopen-minded and strongly convicted just can't go hand in hand, can they? And,besides, I have opinions on everything. I'm always thinking. I don't care howtired I am, once I get in bed I can't get to sleep for an hour. There's just somuch to think about. Really, I mean it. Ask me about anything and I'll have anopinion right on the tip of my tongue."
Unfortunately,too much of this intellectual meandering takes place on court. Most playersagree that the best way to beat Ashe is just to hang with him until hisconcentration starts to wander or until his booming service begins to falter.His serve is much the best among the amateurs. It is almost entirely the resultof flowing coordination, since he scatters only 147 pounds over six feet andlooks, when serving, like a bow and arrow. But more often than not the servedisappears in tandem with the concentration. "He wins or loses everymatch," says George Toley, the University of Southern California coach."Nobody really beats him in that sense."
Ashe does nothave a stroke that can be rated poor, although his forehand and second serveare the more vulnerable aspects of his game. At his peak, he cannot be touched.He slaughtered Pancho Gonzalez 6-0 in Jamaica one day last spring. "Andlisten," Gonzalez emphasizes, "I was really trying. I was playing. Itell you, it was the greatest set of tennis I ever saw played. Yes, includingany of the ones I played." But Ashe's inability to concentrate and hispredilection for experiment hold him back. "I guess," says UCLA's J.D.Morgan, "that the biggest thing he has going for him is also his biggestfault—his imagination." Arthur himself is quite in agreement.
Q. They say thatif your serve is going too well you'll take something off it to make it a moreinteresting match.
A. Oh sure,that's right.
Q. You'll try allsorts of different things to liven it up?
Q. You're upagainst someone who plays a dinky game with a lot of cuts and chips, so you'llabandon your natural—
A. Yeah, yeah.(Laughs.)
Q. your naturalpower game, and chip—
A. Hey, come on.That's it.
Q. chip withhim?
A. Oh, that's me.I'm pegged.
Q. You'll begoing along beautifully, and all of a sudden you can't get something off yourmind and your whole—
A. Oh, you've gotit all. (Giggles.) I'll start thinking about anything but the match—girls, ahorse race. I don't know. At Sydney this past year, I was playing John Newcombein the finals. I won the first set. Then all of a sudden I started thinkingabout this stewardess, Bella, I had met. Oh-h-h-h. She was Miss Trinidad of1962. I just kept seeing her—this gorgeous face, this beautiful creature—andthe next thing I know the match is over and Newcombe's won. And here's howcrazy I am, too. I never even took Bella out. I was too scared. I figured shewas just too beautiful for me.
Ashe searches forsuch inadequacies in himself. In the same way, he likes to uncover reasons tofret about the spate of good things that have happened to him. He feels guiltythat he won a free college education. He is depressed that he travels all overthe world and is no longer impressed by it. He graduated from UCLA in June witha B-minus average and a feeling that he should have done better, since it"came so easy." He seems constantly in pursuit of a trauma, as ifconcerned over his inability to be disturbed like normal people.
Instead, headapts so well that he even got to liking the Army this summer when he had toserve six weeks at ROTC camp. Typically, he volunteered for KP and other odioustasks so that he could not be accused of slacking. "He's worried about theCassius Clay thing," Pancho Gonzalez says. Ashe finished second in hisplatoon in overall achievement and will be inducted into active service for twoyears in February as a second lieutenant in the adjutant general's corps. TheAG is sort of a typewriter infantry—which suggests that the Army probablyintends to let him play tennis when possible and otherwise show off for them asa symbol, an image and the American Dream in modern Army green. "I don'tknow how the Army, the two years, will affect Arthur's tennis career,"Gonzalez says, "but I know this. He is at peace in his mind. He won't ducka thing, and he won't let anybody down."
Ashe himself isfully aware of the special responsibilities that weigh upon him. "You neverforget that you are a Negro, and you certainly can't in my case," he says."The other week when I played on Long Island I went the whole time and didnot see—did nor see—a single other Negro. That's except for the waiters and thelocker-room attendants. And you can bet I always get good treatment in thelocker rooms.
"It's notunusual for me to go a month without a date. Of course, wherever I go there areusually Negroes who look me up. But that can be difficult. I try to be nice,but I'm fickle, I'm choosy no matter what your race happens to be. And howeverwell-meaning these people are I just can't embrace them because we happen to bethe only two lumps of coal in the snowbank.
"For me, it'sa phony world." He stopped to consider that. "No, that's not fair.That's wrong. It isn't a phony world. It's an abnormal world I live in. I don'tbelong anywhere. It's like I'm floating down the middle. I'm never quite surewhere I am. I guess Charlie is my best friend, but I never felt that we werereally as close as we should be. It's simply that he's white and I'm Negro. Ijoined a Negro fraternity at UCLA. You know, I felt I had to at least make theeffort. But I was never really part of it—our interests were so different. It'sjust this: no matter how you happen to look at it, the two things—tennis and aNegro social life—are mutually exclusive."
In many waysbeing a Negro serves to accentuate the nomadic, lonely life of the tenniscircuit. "I'd like to get married now. I really would," he sheepishlyadmits. A year ago the idea repelled Ashe, but most of his tenniscontemporaries are married and it seems to be getting to him. "It'd be niceto have someone. I mean, the last thing I am is a loner. I'm a real extrovertaround people I know. I have to have noise. I carry a radio around all thetime."
This spring,"strictly on one of his crazy impulses," according to Pasarell, Ashegot himself engaged. The memory makes him more sheepish. It made all thecolumns before Ashe and his girl decided against it.
"But I do getlonely," he says, "and it does bother me that I am in this predicament.But I don't dwell on it, because I know it will resolve itself. If I valuedpeace of mind or security more than tennis I could get off the tightrope now,and I will someday. Then, things being the way they are, I'll fall back ontothe Negro side."
Before that (andafter the Army) it is probable—though not yet settled in his mind—that he willturn pro. To be a prime asset, however, he must first win one of the bigones—Wimbledon or Forest Hills—or be the decisive factor in a Davis Cupchallenge. Ashe's game is now at a level where all of this is quite possible.Last year, after he upset Roy Emerson in the quarter-finals at Forest Hills, hepatiently tried to caution the press. "I told them one win, one match isinsignificant. What is important is to establish a trend of winning. Well,"Ashe says, "I've done that now." He has won eight tournaments sincethen, one in the Caribbean, three in the U.S. and four in Australia—despitethoughts of Bella and despite the fact that he went water skiing the whole daybefore the finals of another tournament ("boating," he told CaptainMacCall). After Forest Hills, Ashe may well pass Dennis Ralston and become theNo. 1 U.S. player. He should be ranked no lower than fifth in the world.
The pros arealready drooling. Not only does he have the big, exciting game, but as thefirst Negro pro—apparently Ashe is forever doomed to being identified as thefirst Negro something-or-other—he has special drawing quality. He is quitecognizant of the potential of this reverse racism. "Arthur has,"Charity says, "a very keen, uh, let us say, marketing sense."
Ashe is alreadyon a retainer to promote Coca-Cola and has been hired by Philip MorrisIncorporated to work in its Clark Gum and American Safety Razor divisions."It's against the code for me to push cigarettes here," he reports,"but see me if we ever go past the three-mile limit together, and I'll tellyou all about them." He makes $9,000 a year in "expenses" as amember of the U.S. cup team. The pros will have to go high for him.
"A lot ofpeople say I should do more boasting and bragging about Arthur Jr.," Mr.Ashe says. "But that can get aggravating. I plan to live to 100—and I'llnever make it that way." Pink Ashe died in 1949 at a ripe old age. "Thegood whiskey gave out," Mr. Ashe explains, straight-faced. The Ashes do notjust accept life. They play with it, each in his own way, when they permit itto confront them.
There was thetime last year in Dallas, two days before the Davis Cup round with Mexico. Itwas the most important match of Ashe's career at that point, but he had toattend a fancy luncheon in a tall building. He was able, finally, to escape toa far corner and hide there with some friends. Suddenly, however, he spied twodetermined matrons steering toward him. He knew their look. "Uh-oh," hesaid, "here come the ones who have been assigned to put me at ease." Ifa man did not know better, he might have thought he saw the Killer instinctbriefly pass through Arthur Ashe's eyes. But he smiled instead. "Why doeseveryone want to put me at ease?" he asked. "I am at ease. I'm alwaysat ease." The two ladies came and took him away. They did their duty.Arthur put them at ease.