Among the tennis
trophies arrayed in the living room of the Ashe home in Richmond, Va. is a
decree attesting—quite officially, with one pompous "whereas" after
another—to the honors and attributes of Arthur Ashe Jr. (see cover) and to the
fame that he has brought to his native city. The house, marked for demolition
now, is at the edge of Brookfield Park, a Negro playground where Arthur Ashe
Sr. is guardian and caretaker. The park includes two major recreational
facilities, though one of them, a pool, no longer holds any water. Richmond, in
another, but less inspired, moment declared that it was better to empty all its
pools than to permit the races to cool off together.
between the wasted pool and the warm words on the living-room wall is the
tennis court where the young man who may someday be the best player in the
world started to learn the game. Somehow he also learned to endure the
capriciousness of a time that so arbitrarily gives and takes from his race. He
is the only Negro player in a white tennis world. He is very easy to spot. But
he sometimes has difficulty finding himself, for he must also serve as an
image, that of the American Dream, minority division. Further, because of his
unique status, he is invariably pestered by fawning Negroes whom he does not
know and by patronizing whites keen to display their latent brotherhood now
that they have a colored boy right here at the club.
It is a difficult
role for a 23-year-old, but Ashe bears it all with ease. "His head is not
big enough," says Dr. Walter Johnson, an old coach and friend. "He
tries to be too accommodating and popular with everyone." Nevertheless,
were Ashe not possessed of mature balance and a discerning appreciation of the
ironies about him, it is not likely that he ever would have become the 100th
player in the nation, much less the best or second best. It is often that
whites—whether out of condescension or sincerity—say of him: "There would
be no race trouble if all Negroes were like Arthur Ashe." But the complete
response is: there would be no race trouble if all people were like Arthur
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 of
honor. Arthur Ashe Sr., 47, is stocky and slightly Oriental-looking, with a
philosophy to match: "No one will care a hundred years from now." It
helped to sustain him through a deprived childhood and the loss of a wife. That
the philosophy is not lost on Arthur Jr. helps explain why he can so easily
accept victory or defeat in a mere tennis game with apparent equanimity.
Ashe evidences so
little concern when he plays that he is often accused of being lazy, of simply
not caring. "I've heard it so often that I'm beginning to believe it
myself," 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 athletic
director 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. When
he first arrived at college he was much too shy and introverted.
But Ashe is
always trying to check himself. "No matter how tense I am inside," he
says, "I will never blow up on the court. If you want to know, I'm just too
conscious of the effect it might have on my image. Wait, next question: And do
you worry about your image, Arthur? You're damn right I do."
It is ridiculous
that there should be any debate at all on the question of whether Ashe's court
conduct is too restrained. After all, Americans have suffered far too long with
petulant young tennis tigers. But people just like to worry about Arthur. They
are particularly determined to know if he has that great American athletic
virtue, 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 killer
instinct. Kid from a minority, had to fight his way up, may look loose out
there, but such determination.
instinct? O.K., let's be hypothetical," Ashe says, tilting up the glasses
that 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 playing
Emerson. Do I have a killer instinct? No. Sorry, I just don't have a killer
instinct. I play the game. That's me. I give it all I've got—people are wrong
about that—but if it's not enough I figure they'll just get someone
His demeanor on
the 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 as
his players broke color lines, Dr. Johnson invoked rules of tennis nonviolence
long before such strategy became a widely employed device. He instructed Arthur
and his other young charges to play balls hit an inch or so out by opponents as
if they were good shots, and he told them to smile at their mistakes. Ashe
still does. It drives teeth-gritting, racket-throwing opponents to distraction.
"They think I must be goofy," Arthur says.
discovered at Brookfield by Ronald Charity, a part-time playground instructor
who is now a partner in CJL Associates, a successful public-relations firm in
Richmond. Charity remembers: "It was difficult to tell whether Arthur was
dragging the racket or the racket was dragging Arthur, but he was soon so
obviously good that I arranged to have him go to Dr. Johnson's for a summer. It
was one place a Negro could get teaching and good competition."