In 1973, after years of trying, Arthur Ashe wrangled an invitation to play in the South African Open tennis tournament. He wanted to see for himself how the world might help press South Africa to ease its system of racial oppression, its apartheid. In Johannesburg he met a poet and journalist, a black man named Don Mattera. The South African watched when Ashe was confronted by young blacks who hissed that he was an Uncle Tom and told him that his visit only served to legitimize the racist white-minority government, which should be boycotted, made a pariah, until it abandoned apartheid. Mattera heard Ashe defend the use of sporting contacts to chip away at injustice. Allowing one black man to compete in the tournament had been a concession by the government, and, Ashe argued, "small concessions incline toward larger ones."
Mattera listened when Ashe cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass on how, since power surrenders nothing without a struggle, progress can come only in unsatisfactorily small chunks, and even the tiniest crumb must be better than nothing at all. The South African blacks shouted that Ashe didn't grasp the nature of the police state that bore down on them, that in South Africa his Reverend King would have been thrown into Robben Island prison with their Nelson Mandela. In the face of their seething anger, Ashe had the saintly temerity to warn that if they hoped to exert consistent moral pressure, their emotions were best kept controlled.
No minds were changed. Ashe, depressed by the prospect of standing helplessly on the outside while South African blacks suffered, asked Mattera if he, too, felt Ashe shouldn't have come. Mattera answered carefully, saying it was good to know that people in the rest of the world were concerned, but Ashe needed to understand the full extent of Soweto's misery.
A few days later the South African Bureau of State Security banned Mattera, meaning that he was declared invisible and inaudible. He could no longer publish, travel, enter a library or even speak with more than two people at a time. Imprisonment, he knew, might follow. After a final word with Ashe, Mattera went back to his tiny house, put his six children to bed, lighted a candle and wrote:
I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step evolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the rains of
Your youthful face,
Hiding a pining, anguished spirit,
And I loved you brother—
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul,
Trained to be rebuked or
Mattera's words are an uncanny blueprint of Ashe, a man constructed to hold fast to reason however impassioned his world. Ashe was indeed trained, first by his father and then by a stern coach, to allow rebuke to slide by his ears as if it were birdsong. In the spring of 1955, when he was almost 12, he was turned away from the Richmond city tennis tournament because of his color. By then Ashe's face was a mask, one of wonderful bespectacled mildness. His politesse grew so unbreachable that it ended up as an unnerving weapon against bratty and temper-tossed opponents.
And Ashe was trained, by church and family, to be summoned. He was made a vessel for the tradition—"the Colored catechism," he calls it—that holds that every time is a time of need and that those to whom much has been given will be called to share and ameliorate.
Ashe used his extraordinary reflexes and his backhand to become a tennis prodigy and win a scholarship to UCLA. He used the scholarship to lift his game and take a business degree. He used the game, after adding a big serve, to win the U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975 and to become a founding father of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the players' union. He used the business degree, along with the advice of his friend and attorney, Donald Dell, to nurture his winnings into financial independence. And he has used that independence to accept a series of summonses from causes close to his heart, one being that heart itself. In 1979, at age 36, he suffered a myocardial infarction, which forced him to have bypass surgery and retire from tennis. Within a year Ashe was serving as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.
He has raised millions of dollars for a disparate group of organizations but swears that he has never undertaken pro bono work in the manner of a compulsive do-gooder. Each call simply struck him so personally that he couldn't refuse it. College meant the world to him, so there is the United Negro College Fund. He is an athlete, so he established the Safe Passage Foundation. It comprises the ABC Tennis Program, which operates tennis centers in four inner cities, and the Athlete-Career Connection, an organization committed to improving the graduation rates of minority athletes. He also started the African American Athletic Association, which will soon begin counseling New York City high school athletes. As a black citizen of the world, he joined TransAfrica, a think tank that focuses on U.S. foreign policy as it affects Africa and the Caribbean.
He was the first eminent black male tennis player, and part of the catechism he learned says, Thou shall not close a door behind you. So when Ashe, a voracious reader and self-described "information freak," discovered that African-Americans were cut off from their own sporting history because it had never been comprehensively documented, he took five years to produce the three volumes of A Hard Road to Glory (1988). He won an Emmy for cowriting the television adaptation. Somehow he has found the time to serve as an instruction editor to Tennis magazine, write sports columns for The Washington Post and do tennis commentary for HBO and ABC Sports.