Arthur Ashe Wins Again, Love and Love
This Thursday through Saturday the hometown I share with Ashe will celebrate the renaming of Richmond’s historic Boulevard. Arthur Ashe Boulevard will now cut a swath through Richmond. What a triumph for an international tennis champion who died in 1993. What just rewards for a social activist, dignified and principled, peaceful and determined. What a tribute to a champ of a human being, gracious and steadfast. How right for Richmond to get it right.
Though we spent our childhoods in Richmond hitting tennis balls, Ashe and I lived in different worlds.
Arthur wasn’t allowed to play on the public courts at Byrd Park much less in tournaments held at country clubs. He couldn’t compete in high school matches representing all-black Maggie Walker. He couldn’t play on indoor courts at The Arena, a multipurpose venue off the Boulevard where his dad worked for the Recreation Department, Arthur Ashe, Sr. setting up the court when traveling pros came to town for exhibition matches. Arthur learned to play at Brookfield Park, its four courts set aside by the city for “blacks-only”. I never met him. I never saw him at a tournament, though there were plenty of older boys his age. The first time I saw him play was his televised victory at the 1968 US Open.
One end of the long Arthur Ashe Boulevard lies at Byrd Park where I learned to play the game. In 1963, two weeks before Dr. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, I played in the first integrated tennis match in a sanctioned tournament at Byrd Park. Meanwhile, also in 1963, Arthur earned a tennis scholarship to play at UCLA, winning the NCAA singles and doubles titles in 1965.
Traveling from Byrd Park along the Arthur Ashe Boulevard is quite a ride: The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on the left, and soon traffic curls around a huge statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson at the intersection with Monument Avenue. Farther along is The Diamond, a minor league ballpark, with the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center nearby. I like what happens when retracing the drive on Arthur Ashe Boulevard and turning right on Monument Avenue. Bouncing on the cobblestone street of my childhood, I’ve looked forward to the intersection with Roseneath Avenue since 1996. Behold, a bronze statue of Arthur Ashe! He holds books up high , his tennis racket in his left, non-playing hand, a crowd of eager children looking up at his gentle face. The slim, bespectacled figure will draw another crowd of admirers this weekend.
Yes, he won the Australian and US Opens in addition to Wimbledon. He also stood tall against apartheid in South Africa, protested the treatment of Haitian immigrants in the United States, and took the fight for AIDS awareness and prevention to the United Nations a few months before he died. He completed his stirring memoir, Days of Grace, barely a week before his death in 1993. Tennis gave Arthur a platform. He used it at every stage of his life.
The iconic photograph featured on the Sports Illustrated cover (Photo #9) of Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon in 1975 hung over my desk during my years of college teaching. A gift from one of my students who appreciated my admiration of Ashe, it moved on to hang in the high school classroom of one of my former tennis campers.
To celebrate one of my longtime heroes, I offer a story I wish I could share with Arthur, plus a quote from his Days of Grace that gives me both comfort and clear direction.
Years ago when I was directing a tennis camp, one of the campers had won, months earlier, a scholarship, to spend Sunday at an Arthur Ashe clinic. “Could I please please go and come back in time for team tennis?” Philip asked. Wishing I could go in his place, I sent him on his way. I can still see him when he returned, running as fast as he could from his parents’ car, blazing across green fields toward me. Breathlessly, legs still churning though at a standstill, he reported excitedly: “There’s only one difference between you and Arthur. He says to hold one ball in your hand when you serve. You say to hold two.” Oh what a world, I think the one that social activist Ashe envisioned.
His life could have been the long story of all the things that he could not do. Instead, through inner resolve and self-confidence, with the help and support of teachers and family, he did it all. What a fine example he is in these dark days in the United States. He suggests to each of us a way forward. In Arthur’s words: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”