Every Sunday, Arthur Jr. had to go to church, either to First Presbyterian or Westwood Baptist, where his parents had met and where he would look up at a picture of Christ with blond hair and blue eyes and wonder if God was on his side. Matters of church and salvation were insubstantial compared with the blunt axioms put forward by his father about how to live life. "You don't get nowhere by making enemies," said Arthur Sr. "You gain by helping others." Thus he ingrained in his son the survival ethic of a community that had looked after its own for generations.
"Drummed into me above all, by my dad, by the whole family, was that without your good name, you would be nothing," says Ashe. "When some old black lady, maybe your grandmother or maybe a dignified domestic on her way home from cleaning the white people's houses, saw you or any other black boy doing something wrong, there was one expression she would use that you did not want to hear. It meant you were letting everybody down—your friends, your family, your history. And that expression was, 'Boy, you should be ashamed of yourself.' Lord, the weight those words carried."
Ashe had little occasion to be guilt-stricken. "My father never let me get a job like delivering papers," he recalls. "He kept me home, out of trouble. I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school"—Arthur Sr. had timed the walk—"and I kept to that rule through high school."
The Ashes lived in a house on the grounds of the Brookfield Playground, then Richmond's largest blacks-only playground. A few steps from the door were four hard-surface tennis courts. Arthur Jr., so spindly that he seemed to be swung by his borrowed racket as much as he swung it, haunted those courts, which made him a little odd, because black children had no habit of tennis. They loved football, which Arthur's father forbade him to play because of his frailty.
He was taught some basic strokes by a young player named, magnificently, Ron Charity. What Arthur received from his father wasn't quite encouragement. Call it surveillance. Once, having thrown his racket in frustration, Arthur heard the screen door slam and looked up to see his father bearing down on him. He has yet to throw his second racket.
Ashe never chafed under his father's rules or under those of his coach, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., of Lynchburg, Va., who took him in during summers after Arthur was 10, adding him to a stable of young black players. Johnson insisted that in tournaments his boys play any shot that was an inch or two outside the line as if it were in. Johnson shaped much more than Ashe's game.
"We were taught table manners and the strictest etiquette and that unshakable Oriental calm." says Ashe. "But I also noticed that control was damned effective. Other players' fathers were always telling Dr. Johnson, 'My son was going to pieces. Your player never changed expression.' Everybody stressed sportsmanship in the black tennis community, because the community was a creature of the black middle class. Doctors, teachers, morticians—image meant something to them. I envied players who could sling a racket and get away with it."
His shots were uninhibited, but the furthest he ever went toward releasing his emotions was to slug a ball into the cheap seats during a tournament in Denver in the early '70s. "I burst out in laughter," Ashe says. "Embarrassed, disbelieving laughter. You know it's not natural to contain all those reactions."
The thought evokes the description of Ashe's play by Clark Graebner, his Davis Cup teammate in the '60s, in John McPhee's 1969 book, Levels of the Game: "I've never been a flashy stylist, like Arthur. I'm a fundamentalist.... I'm interested in business, in the market, in children's clothes. It affects the way you play the game. He's not a steady player.... His mind wanders.... He plays the game with the lackadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal. He's an underprivileged type who worked his way up. His family are fine people. He's an average Negro from Richmond, Virginia. There's something about him that is swashbuckling, loose.... He comes out on the court and he's tight for a while, then he hits a few good shots and he feels the power to surge ahead. He gets looser and more liberal with the shots he tries, and pretty soon he is hitting shots everywhere. He does not play percentage tennis. Nobody in his right mind, really, would try those little dink shots he tries as often as he does.... He hits the ball so hard that it's an outright winner or he misses the shot. When he misses, he just shrugs his shoulders.... I think he works too hard at trying to keep his cool.... It's not human to be that cool. He is penned in. Feelings need an outlet. I hope he is not going to lose his cool by trying to keep his cool."
Although Ashe had a family history of heart disease—Arthur Sr., who died of a stroke in 1989, had a heart attack in the '70s—it was exceedingly unusual for a highly conditioned, six-foot, 150-pound professional athlete to have a heart attack at 36. So he has often been asked whether the feelings he penned up over the years might not have congealed into occluding deposits in his coronary arteries. Might his control, his defining grace, have come at the cost of his health?