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Frank Deford
December 10, 1973
For a brief moment the clouds of prejudice parted and South Africa gloried in color as Arthur Ashe almost won a tennis tournament and light-heavyweight titleholder Bob Foster outpointed Pierre Fourie
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December 10, 1973

Lull Beneath The Jacaranda Tree

For a brief moment the clouds of prejudice parted and South Africa gloried in color as Arthur Ashe almost won a tennis tournament and light-heavyweight titleholder Bob Foster outpointed Pierre Fourie

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By contrast, Ashe grew in stature with a population that had been generally ignorant of his sport. After he gave a clinic on one of his visits to Soweto, the people christened him Sipho ("A Gift"), draped an amulet around his neck and sounded off three cheers for him. A Colored poet named Don Mattera wrote Anguished Spirit—Ashe. It begins:

I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step evolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the rains of tolerance
And patience.
Your youthful face,
A mask,
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 summoned...

Purposefully, Ashe solicited every possible view, even chartering a plane to meet with Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi in the bush. Bad weather forced him back, but he met Alan Paton, members of the government, the opposition, all races, clergy, journalists, businessmen, sports figures and, in Cape Town, in something like a mad Fellini parody, the infinitely-publicized man who is, for good reasons, recognized as "the South African Jackie Kennedy."

Smiling and immaculate, the charming Dr. Christiaan Barnard greeted Ashe at the entrance to a multi-racial children's hospital. Barnard led Ashe, his party and a herd of pressmen about the wards, steering the thundering ensemble as if he were some beachfront real-estate salesman. "Ah, here's one just operated on this very morning. See the incision...? And now this little fellow over here, I've had all the blood out of him for 40 minutes.... Oh, one with a hole in his heart? Yes, of course. Come right this way."

More privately, Barnard volunteered to Ashe that he was not in favor of one-man, one-vote. It was a rare honest admission in a land where 99% of the legislature supports apartheid and 99% of the voters that Ashe met assured him that their politics lay, oh, about midway between Wayne Morse and Huey Newton. Apartheid is a much more subtle piece of business than what the world sees of it in those interminable photographs of "Black" and "White" rest-room signs that suggest South Africa is nothing but a nation of public toilets. The Afrikaans govern and are the easy villains, but the English speak with forked tongue. They own the place.

It was not the whites but, oddly, some blacks who resented Ashe, who told him he should not even have come. Once, in Soweto, he was ringed by such a hostile student minority that a look of genuine concern suddenly crossed his face. "There is an hypothesis," says Cliff Drysdale, the sensitive South African player, "that all this must end in violence. If you accept that, then Arthur's visit, Foster's, any dealings with this government, only prolong that agony."

But this springtime the moderates ruled, and in this land of ambiguity the whites greeted the black stars with a warmth that was almost eerie. "Don't ask me to explain human inconsistencies," Ashe said, "but I have seen with my eyes that this place is not a lost cause. I have seen that there is a hope that a better future lies with the young people."

The response to him on the courts was a groundswell, rising as he passed on to the finals. A tournament record of almost 100,000 people who paid a quarter of a million dollars seemed nearly all for Ashe, even when he beat the popular Drysdale in the semis, and especially in the previous round when he thrashed the more typical South African, Bob Hewitt, a man who previously had informed Ashe that all South African blacks were "happy."

But in the finals, with fans packed about the courts and clamoring above billboards, the Wunderkind, Jimmy Connors, dispatched Ashe and history in three straight sets. In the semis, Connors had routed Tom Okker with the best tennis, Okker said, that a man had ever played against him, and while Connors was not quite so consummate in the final, Ashe's serve deserted him much too often for him to keep up with this infectious young player who may very soon become the best in the world.

Ashe did have a set point at 6-5 in the second set, but Connors saved that with a lined backhand cross-court, and then promptly crushed Ashe in the tie breaker, squeezing a sigh from the whole place. The final, perfunctory set was played before a genuinely saddened audience, nearly in silence.

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