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Ashe statue not yet a hit at U.S. Open

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Updated: Friday October 13, 2000 12:49 PM
  Arthur Ashe Statue The statue of Arthur Ashe has stirred up quite a bit of talk at the U.S. Open. AP

NEW YORK (CNN/SI) -- The first thing fans arriving at the National Tennis Center's main entrance see on the grounds is a new, 14-foot statue honoring Arthur Ashe, facing the stadium that bears his name.

It has puzzled and angered some -- and not just because it is a nude, stylized representation of the tennis great.

The sculpture, created by artist Eric Fischl, has its left arm raised as if to serve a tennis ball, and holds just the stub of a racket its right hand.

"How does he hit the ball?" wondered 12-year-old Michael Palmer of Old Bridge, N.J.

That wasn't a mistake. The artist planned it that way.

"I did not complete the tennis racket the figure holds because I wanted it to also act like a baton that gets passed on from one generation to the next: a symbol of hope and continuity," Fischl explained at the dedication.

Some people thought the statue would be a depiction of Ashe, whose name is on the main stadium at the tennis center. There is no resemblance to him, though. Fischl explained that, too.

"My ambition was to create a work in the tradition of heroic sculpture that, though not a likeness of Arthur Ashe, tries to express values that I associate with him and his good works," he said.

"I sought, through the gesture of a server, to express such things as power and grace, will and desire. I wanted the feeling of someone coming into their being through the sheer strength of their ambition."

Then there is the matter of the missing clothes. A few fans questioned that decision, too.

"I wanted to give these attributes a human form and I wanted it to be uplifting; to give the viewer a soaring and transcendent feeling," the sculptor said. "I believe it had to be nude to give these values a timeless quality and to remind us that our immortality necessarily passes through the vulnerability of our flesh."

That didn't convince Emily Moore, executive director of the Alliance Junior Tennis League in Roosevelt, N.Y., who kept interrupting the dedication with comments that the statue should be clothed.

"This is awful," she said. "This is not what Arthur was about. Arthur Ashe stood for more than that. Where are the books? Where are the children?"

Ashe's widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, liked the sculpture and thought her husband would have, as well.

"I believe he would approve of this commemorative statue," she said. "I am also pleased that the figure celebrates the life of an African-American man in a park that serves an incredible mosaic of ethnic groups in this great city."

The sculpture stands in a small garden at the main entrance, in a direct line between Arthur Ashe Stadium and the Unisphere, a leftover landmark of the 1964 World's Fair.

The garden is encircled by a wall with a quote from Ashe: "From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life."

Judy Levering, president of the U.S. Tennis Association, said the statue and garden had been built "in the hope that the public -- and particularly young people -- may continue to remember what Arthur Ashe stood for."

Eventually, the statue will be part of a "Walk of Champions" featuring a number of U.S. Open winners.

About half of the cost of the statue was contributed by a small group of tennis fans, with the balance of about $300,000 donated by the USTA.

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