It's not merely because he is the only black male thus far to achieve superstardom in professional tennis that Arthur Ashe stands out from the crowd; it's also because he is one of the few genuinely multidimensional individuals ever to achieve superstardom in any sport.
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1981 issue
Though Ashe regards tennis as the central experience of his existence and sees the game as "a metaphor for life," he has scarcely limited himself to the small world within the lines of the court. He has been an active participant in political and civil rights causes; he has traveled frequently to South Africa to bear witness against its apartheid laws; he seeks out the company of men and women who are pathfinders in political and cultural life; he reads widely and writes a newspaper column that emphasizes the deeper issues of the sporting life.
He also writes books, though he has yet to write one on his own. Apart from an instruction manual or two, his most recent and most serious book, Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion, was published six years ago. Done in collaboration with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Frank Deford, it is an unusually candid, humorous and illuminating account of life in the glittering caravan of international tennis.
Now, with the assistance of Neil Amdur of The New York Times, Ashe has told his life story. Entitled Off the Court (NAL Books, $13.95), the book is exactly what its title promises: an examination of the other dimensions of Ashe's varied life, from his boyhood in segregated Richmond to his college years in California to his growing involvement in causes and ideas having little or nothing to do with his impressive ability to smash an overhead winner.
Candor, in this book, as in the previous one, is Ashe's stock in trade. But his isn't the kind of candor usually associated with "inside" sports books; gossip and innuendo aren't up his alley. Instead, he is candid about himself, in a clear effort to understand himself. To wit: "I like to experience as much of life as possible. I've always felt I can sleep and rest when I'm dead; while I'm here, let's get it on and live life to the fullest. A lot of this thinking goes back to my childhood and the unmistakable impression left in black schoolchildren that there is not much they can do beyond being garbage men or mailmen. You might be a policeman, but never a bank president, mayor or chief of police...you grow up with this mentality. I wanted to establish myself in the tennis world, and I knew I'd have to pay a price for anything that I did well. That's one of the reasons I resolved not to get married before I was 30. I just wasn't going to do it. I wanted to make my mark first."
The story of Ashe's early years in tennis is a familiar one to followers of the sport. In 1947, when he was four years old, his father was put in charge of a public playground in Richmond. "Suddenly, a swimming pool, baseball fields and four tennis courts were outside my door," Ashe says. Soon enough he revealed a particular talent for tennis, a game often associated in the 1950s with white country club members.
So he was sent to Lynchburg, Va. to study the game under the tutelage of Robert Walter Johnson, a black physician whose "obsession" was "the development of good black junior tennis players." Ashe learned strokes, tactics and strategies. He also learned some of the facts of life. "There were...maxims meant only for little black Southern boys: when in doubt, call your opponent's shot good; if you're serving the game before the change of ends, pick up the balls on your side and hand them to your opponent during the crossover. Dr. Johnson knew we were going into territory that was often hostile, and he wanted our behavior to be beyond reproach. It would be years before I understood the emotional toll of repressing anger and natural frustration."
Yet however damaging such repression may be, it is a mark of his character that he was able to keep his emotions in check during his march to the top. From college tennis at UCLA to the amateur circuit of the early 1960s to the coming of open tennis later in the decade, he was a black man in a white world; only by exercising extraordinary self-control was he able to suppress his anger, thereby freeing himself to get on with the business at hand.
At the same time, Ashe came under heavy pressure from civil rights organizations and individual blacks to become a spokesman for black causes. From time to time he did so, but always with an underlying skepticism. "What do black athletes, most of whom are not politically inclined, have to offer? What makes Sammy Davis, Jr. an expert on race relations? Why must black entertainers bring up race during their performances? Speak out if you've got something to say, I reasoned, otherwise say nothing."
It must be pointed out, though, that "saying nothing" isn't really Ashe's natural bent. As his own stature rose in the late '60s and early '70s, and as discrimination against blacks decreased, he became ever more free to speak his mind. He does exactly that in his book. Not merely does he talk about everything from South Africa to sex, but he also discusses his own quirks and foibles—an "obsession with understanding death," for example, and a "fascination" with the sociology of human skin color.
The Arthur Ashe who emerges from the pages of Off the Court is the same fellow we often read about and watch on television: witty, earnest, generous, forthcoming yet slightly distant. He knows just how to be candid without letting down his defenses; he has had plenty of practice. But Off the Court is clearly part of a process by which he is lowering his guard. It is an exceptionally appealing book.