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Frank Deford
August 29, 1966
As a racial symbol Arthur Ashe sometimes has trouble keeping a straight face. On the tennis court, only lack of concentration stands between him and greatness
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August 29, 1966

Service, But First A Smile

As a racial symbol Arthur Ashe sometimes has trouble keeping a straight face. On the tennis court, only lack of concentration stands between him and greatness

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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.

About midway 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 Ashe.

Ashe's qualities, 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.

"Killer 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 else."

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.

Arthur was 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."

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