Gentleman Rebel

Wednesday, February 06, 2013 /by

This week we’ve learned of a match-fixing scandal in soccer and been reminded, rightly, by Andy Murray, that tennis needs to do more on that other scandalous front, doping. Amid all of that, it comes as welcome, if sad, news that today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Arthur Ashe from AIDS-related pneumonia. On the one hand, if ever sports could use a figure as upstanding and inspiring as Ashe, it’s now. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that athletics once produced people of his stature, and that tennis was his game.

Who knows what Ashe, who would have turned 70 this summer, would be doing now if he had lived. Maybe he would have been involved with the Obama administration, or with sports on a global scale. 

In February 2009, I wrote about Ashe and his quietly effective political activism on this website and in Tennis magazine. That month I had watched Jo-Wilfried Tsonga win the SA Open, a 250-level event in Johannesburg, South Africa, that was discontinued in 2011. Somehow I hadn't immediately made the connection to Ashe and his own, much more controversial attempts to be allowed to play in South Africa in the apartheid-era 1970s. Below is an updated version of what I wrote about Ashe’s first trip there, in 1973.

*****

The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Maybe the phrase should be: The more things change, the less we notice.

Before this week is over and we turn our attention to Rotterdam and Paris, let me take a minute to note that on Sunday, a black tennis player, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, won the South African Open in Johannesburg.

My first reaction to that news was something along the lines of, “Maybe Tsonga can keep up his momentum this year.” But looking at the photos from the post-final trophy ceremony, where he posed with local fans, it struck me that not long ago his win would have been (1) of incredible political significance, and (2) impossible.

This was the first year that an ATP event has been held in South Africa since 1995. Before that, “Jo-burg” had been a staple of the tour for decades, a regular stop—there were two tournaments in the city each year in the 70s—in one of the traditional Anglo hotbeds of the sport. Tsonga is the first black player to win the tournament. Which isn’t too surprising, since none entered it until 1973. But I didn't see that mentioned in any of the reports on his win.

In '73, Arthur Ashe made a deal with South Africa’s apartheid government to be allowed into the draw. He had first tried to enter in 1970 and was denied, which led him to call for the South Africa’s ouster from the ITF, and for other nations to boycott Davis Cup ties against the country. That eventually led to South Africa winning the Cup by default over India in 1974, a low point in the competition’s history, but a high point for political commitment in sports.

Three years after his initial attempt, Ashe finally made the trip. He drew criticized from both sides for playing. As Cliff Drysdale, an opponent of apartheid and friend of Ashe, said at the time, there were those in South Africa who believed that apartheid was destined to end in violence, and that by coming there Ashe was actually making the government look humane and prolonging the inevitable (Drysdale himself didn’t buy this argument). On the other side was Bob Hewitt, a transplant to the country from Australia who thought Ashe should mind his own business, because the blacks in South Africa were “happy.” Ashe went anyway, determined to see the system for himself and to show blacks there what one of their own could do if given a chance.

Ashe’s trip was a sensation in the country, to the point where it stunned even him. He was nicknamed “Sipho” in the black township of Soweto, meaning “gift.” His matches were like mini-Super Bowls, where he was cheered by black and white alike. He had forced the tournament’s promoter to allow blacks to sit anywhere in the stadium; normally, apartheid was enforced at tennis matches like anywhere else. One day Ashe found himself being followed by a young black man. When Ashe asked him what he wanted, he said that he’d never seen a free black person before. Ashe was surprised and moved by the statement. As the week went on, though, he noticed a different type of follower. His car was being tailed.

Ashe recorded his reactions to the trip in his 1975 book with DeFord, "Portrait in Motion." Like his fellow amateur era tennis player-scribe, Gordon Forbes, Ashe was one of the most thoughtful athletes you’ll ever read. In its searching quality and calm perceptiveness, the book has parallels to Barack Obama’s "Dreams From My Father," which ends with the future president's own trip to Africa.

Ashe’s descriptions are notable for their depth and intelligence, but also for their lack of political ponderousness or weighty spirituality. He says that he was almost happy to see “Whites Only” signs on public restrooms in South Africa, because not seeing them in that country would have been like not seeing the Eiffel Tower on a trip to Paris. But he also ends with a chilling conversation with a group of whites who continually vote for apartheid candidates. The easy life that the system affords them is so hard to give up, its artifice so hard to confront, that it leads them to justify it by telling themselves that blacks are “children” who need to be taken care of. Perhaps because of his background in an individual sport like tennis, though, Ashe didn’t confuse the political with the personal. He maintained that the white South African players of his era, like Drysdale, Ray Moore, and Gordon Forbes, all products of apartheid, were as fine and intelligent a group of people as he had ever met anywhere.

The SA Open was an eventful tournament on court for Ashe as well. In an early round, he beat Drysdale and sensed that the whites in the crowd were rooting for him, and against their home-country favorite, because Cliff was a critic of apartheid. In the final Ashe faced—who else?—Jimmy Connors, the all-purpose tennis villain of the era. Connors, in his second year on tour, took out Ashe in straight sets. As DeFord says, by the third set the crowd was completely silent as it saw that its hero was going to be outmatched on this day.

Thirty-five years later, Tsonga, a Frenchman whose father is African, went all the way to the title. South Africa is hardly a utopia 15 years after the end of apartheid. And this era of sports has its own troubles as well. As proud as Ashe would have been to see Tsonga win in Johannesburg—Ashe, who was later arrested in anti-apartheid protests, died the year before South Africa became a democracy—he might not have loved the fact that this year’s SA Open was held at a casino, the same week that tennis was facing another match-fixing controversy elsewhere.

The most famous tennis event of 1973 was the Battle of the Sexes, another example of the sport as a social force for change. Ashe’s trip to South Africa, which was perhaps even more significant, has been overshadowed by it. They’re really flip sides of the same coin. Ashe and Billie Jean King were born in the same year, 1943; each was a product of tennis’ amateur era, which was a kind of sporting apartheid. They reacted to its exclusivity in opposite ways but ended in similar positions. In populist California, King chaffed at women’s second-class status in the sport and became the game's outspoken feminist rebel. In Old South Richmond, Va., Ashe was schooled by his coach in the amateur sporting code and became tennis’ consummate gentleman rebel.

Isn’t it interesting that the transition from the amateur era to the Open era of tennis produced two of the most politically significant athletes of the last four decades in any sport? There were injustices then, just as there are discouraging aspects to today’s pro era; we produce great champions and people now, but nobody with the stature or conscience of Ashe and King. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, Ashe’s legacy is someone like Tsonga, a charismatic international superstar, potent symbol of success for a continent, and all-around good guy who, rather than being banned from South Africa, was probably paid a whopping fee just to come there. The fact that his title was hardly a blip on anyone’s radar screen shows just how thoroughly things have been transformed, from a sporting perspective, since the 1970s. The next World Cup, in 2010, will be held in South Africa.

It wasn't always that way. The twin universes of sports and culture were up for grabs in the late 60s and early 70s. Tennis should be proud that it had a player like Arthur Ashe, who, in his gentlemanly way, did some of the grabbing. You know you’ve succeeded as a rebel when nobody even notices what you changed.

*****

—For further Ashe reading, here’s a piece I did on a photo exhibit on him last year, in our Scenes from Queens series at the U.S. Open.

—Here’s an early SI cover story by Frank DeFord, from 1966, of a younger and somewhat looser Ashe from the one we came to know.

—And you could really do something worse with your 18 cents than pick up a used copy of Ashe’s 1974 tour diary, written with DeFord, "Portrait in Motion."

—For Ashe viewing, above is the final two games of his most famous victory, his masterful upset of Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. To see highights of his second-most-famous win, at the first U.S. Open, in 1968, go here.

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