TennisWorthy, from the International Tennis Hall of Fame: Jackie Robinson's telegram to Lieutenant Arthur Ashe, read by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe
NEW YORK—Everything feels new at the US Open this year. The tournament’s five-year rebuilding project has been completed, on schedule. A revamped Louis Armstrong Stadium has met with positive reviews and large crowds. And the grounds have been transformed and modernized with acres of added steel and concrete. Slew Hester, the man who moved the Open to Flushing Meadows in 1978, would have trouble recognizing the graffiti-strewn facility that he first spotted from the seat of an incoming airplane.
Perhaps sensing that the tournament’s past was slipping away underneath them, US Open officials, in partnership with the International Tennis Hall of Fame, have injected a little history into Flushing Meadows this year. Lining the long walkway that connects the side courts near the South Gate are a series of rectangular displays, five feet high, of photographs that bring the ancient Open—the one held at Forest Hills and played on grass courts—into the present in vivid black-and-white.
The photos are from a new coffee-table book called Crossing the Line: Arthur Ashe at the 1968 US Open (Hannibal). It documents the 36 hours that Ashe spent with John G. Zimmerman, a photographer for Life magazine well-known for his portraits of African-American athletes, at the end of the ’68 Open. During that very productive day and a half, Ashe won the US Open singles final in five sets; won a five-set doubles semifinal with partner Andres Gimeno; lost the doubles final with Gimeno to Stan Smith and Bob Lutz; and flew with the U.S. Davis Cup team to Las Vegas, where he appeared on stage with Harry Belafonte. If you were going to be around for any 36 hours of Ashe’s much-too-short life, those were probably the ones to choose.
Zimmerman’s photos mix on-court action with candid off-court shots. We see Ashe eating breakfast at his hotel, doing a crossword puzzle, riding the subway, dressing in the locker room, interacting with reporters, family members, teammates, opponents, fans and people on the streets of Manhattan. The on-court photos are not action shots in the traditional sense; they are, to borrow the title of another book about Ashe, portraits in motion. Even when he’s on court, they’re less about Ashe the player than they are Ashe the person. Supplementing Zimmerman’s photos are series of often-insightful essays from people who knew, or knew of, Ashe in various ways: John McEnroe, Gael Monfils, Tom Okker (the man Ashe beat in the US Open final that year), the author Ishmael Reed, the photographer Walter Ioos, the African-American swimmer Simone Manuel.
“The series is a sociographic study dissecting a character, and the way he moves and acts,” writes Arne de Winde in the introduction to Crossing the Line. “Zimmerman’s match pictures are characterized by an extreme focus on the figure of Ashe. They seem to register every single gesture and movement.”
What did Zimmerman reveal about Ashe in these previously unpublished photos that we didn’t know before? Most of us have read about how Ashe was an African-American pioneer in an overwhelmingly white sport. But to see his isolation in pictures—in literal black and white—is to get a new appreciation for what his life was like on a day-to-day basis. He’s alone, almost constantly, in a small sea of white reporters, players, and fans. Among the few blacks he’s shown with are his father and his aunt.
How easy would it have been, once he had access to this privileged white world, for Ashe to embrace it and not jeopardize his place in it by getting involved in politics? Yet that’s exactly what he did. Winning the Open gave Ashe the confidence to use his platform as a star athlete for purposes beyond sports. The following year he began his quest to become the first black player to enter the South Africa Open.
Crossing the Line makes it clearer than ever what it meant for Ashe to do just that—cross the color line—and how important and commendable it was that he never left the other side behind.
The most surprising and amusing of Zimmerman’s photos isn’t one of Ashe. It’s a shot of his friend, rival, Davis Cup teammate and fellow US Open champion, Stan Smith, standing next to him an airport, wearing a pork-pie hat.
It’s a cheekier image than the one most of have of Smith—the towering, ramrod straight Army Lieutenant turned unlikely fashion icon. That version of Smith, the one we know well, gets his own coffee-table book this week, with the release of Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m a Shoe (Rizzoli)
The title is a pretty fair summation of how far Smith’s reputation has traveled from Ashe’s since they first became friends 50 years ago. Where Ashe is now revered as athlete and activist, Smith’s own outstanding playing career has largely been obscured, even as his name has become ubiquitous. There must be millions of people around the world who would be stunned to learn that the real, live Stan Smith is still walking among us.
But Smith is still going strong, and aging gracefully, at 71. And while this book is sponsored by Adidas, the maker of his world-famous “Stans,” we’re reminded in its pages that he is indeed more than shoe. While Smith wasn’t a pioneer like Ashe, he was a No. 1 player and figure of historical importance in his own right.
Unlike Ashe, Smith was exactly the type of person you thought of when you thought of a tennis player. Six-foot-four, blonde, white, clean-cut, from Pasadena, Calif., he was even the son of a tennis coach. There was nothing revolutionary about him; in the era of the counterculture, Smith symbolized the long arm of the law. In his Wimbledon and Davis Cup duels with with his polar opposite, Romania’s rascally and buffoonish Ilie Nastase, Smith was cast as the defender of American values in a sporting Cold War. But Smith also wasn’t afraid to stand with the rebels. In 1973, he came to Wimbledon as the defending champion, yet he joined 80 other men in boycotting the event to stand in solidarity with a fellow player.
Some People Think I’m a Shoe details this history in bite-size morsels. It also, naturally, details the history of the Stan Smith shoe. We learn that it was created in 1965, that its designers gave it a unique look by turning Adidas’s trademark three stripes into three nearly-invisible perforations, and that it was originally endorsed by French tennis player Robert Haillet, before Smith took over in 1971. The deal that Smith’s agent, Donald Dell, signed with Adidas’ Horst Dassler—son of company founder Adi Dassler—has made it the best-selling “name” shoe in history. Its ultra-clean look has also made it the fashionable sneaker of choice for everyone from David Bowie in the mid-70s to Pharrell today.
Fun fact: The photo of Smith that still graces the shoe’s tongue was taken in 1969, during the only six months of his adult life in which he wasn’t sporting a mustache.
“I wonder sometimes,” Smith says today, with eerie humor, “if I should shave my mustache to look like the shoe.”
While it’s not as serious or essential as Crossing the Line, Smith’s book will appeal to tennis historians and fashionistas in equal measure. Together, the two tomes show the range and power of the Open era. Professional tennis gave Ashe a political platform, even as it turned Smith into a commodity. In very different ways, the sport has made these two old friends immortal.
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