Scenes from Queens: Arthur Ashe

by: Steve Tignor | September 08, 2012

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The U.S. Open is more than just the matches, it's an experience. Each day, we'll highlight one part of what makes the Open the Open.

The U.S. Open is rightfully known as a circus of commercialism, a dizzying merry-go-round of corporate logos, clothing shops, wine bars, upscale food stands, and, sprinkled here and there, a tennis court or two. But while “tradition” is not the first word that comes to mind as you walked the grounds, the USTA hasn’t given the country’s tennis history short shrift, either. In 1997, it named its shiny new main stadium after Arthur Ashe, and three years later commissioned the artist Eric Fischl to create a statue honoring him in the center of the grounds. What the wry and dignified Ashe, who died in 1993, would have made of the results—a gargantuan arena and a nude sculpture—has long been a matter of speculation. 

This year Ashe has been given a new, temporary tribute, the quality of which no one can dispute. For the last two weeks, the Open’s bookstore has been the home to an exhibit of two dozen black-and-white photographs of Ashe taken by Rowland Scherman for Life magazine in 1966. (You can see some of them, along with shots that aren’t included in the exhibit, at Scherman’s website.)
Scherman was a well-known magazine photographer who covered many of the big events of the 60s—the Newport Folk Festival, March on Washington, the Beatles’ first concert, Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated run for president. In 1966, the editors at Life got word of a young African-American from Virginia who was heading for UCLA, and was projected to become the country’s next great tennis player. Scherman joined Ashe at an amateur event in Texas and tagged along as he traveled to Los Angeles to begin the school year. 
Chronicling a few weeks in the life of a young tennis player may sound like small potatoes for someone who had photographed Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan, but it’s easy to see from the very first shot that Ashe was a 60s phenomenon in his own right. There he’s shown walking away from a court after a match in Texas, in his whites. holding his racquet, seemingly about to sign an autograph. Behind him, at a polite distance, are a group of white spectators watching and smiling—they don’t quite gawk, but they’re clearly curious about him. A theme is established: Arthur Ashe is alone, at a remove, making his way in a foreign white world. 
The exhibit’s introductory text is below this photo. In it, Scherman says that Ashe was just a “young guy” at that point, far from the world figure he would become. But even then everyone who met him was struck by his “incredible self-confidence” and the sense that he knew he was going to be a champion. Most people also believed that he would go into politics one day, though Scherman concludes that Ashe achieved more through his humanitarian work. Thoughts of Barack Obama, another black man with gifts of dignity, self-confidence, and crossover appeal, are unavoidable.
In the the stark, luminous photos that follow, we follow Ashe through the Southwest. He drives a Mustang and rides a Honda motorcycle—contrary to the virtuous image we have of him now, Ashe liked to lived a little. He watches TV in his tennis shorts, reads the paper, goes to a dance, flirts with a woman, does his laundry, gets directions from a gas station attendant, hits golf balls on a driving range, and subsequently eats dinner, alone, in the golf club’s dining hall. The men eating at the tables around him are all white; their waiter is black. 
At that point, the exhibit turns a corner and continues on a new wall. Ashe begins anew as well. He’s in Los Angeles now, and for the first time he’s not surrounded by whites. In the show’s two most memorable shots, ones that any sports-history junkie will savor, he’s shown meeting UCLA basketball coach John Wooden (the Wizard had won two of his record 10 NCAA titles at that point), and his star sophomore, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). It’s notable that the photo of Ashe with the black members of the basketball team is the only one in which we see him make eye contact with anyone. He and Alcindor share a smile as they shake hands.
After that, Ashe moves on alone again, and back into his tennis whites. We get a great look at his best shot, his serve, in mid-motion. We see him hold the winner’s trophy at an amateur event. In both of these shots, the audience is an all-white blur in the background. Ashe, the solo warrior in an alien world, looks a little uncomfortable as he holds the trophy. But he already looks older, more determined, and more mature than he did in the opening shots on the road to California. It feels like his ascent, and the mix of pride and anxiety that would go with it, has begun.
The show ends with a photo of Ashe alone, strumming a guitar; he looks like a would-be black Dylan. From the start, even before he became politically active, Ashe was more than a tennis player. It’s no coincidence that John McPhee wrote books in the 60s about Ashe (Levels of the Game) and Princeton basketball player Bill Bradley (A Sense of Where You Are). These were hopeful, youthful Great Society figures who transcended their games. Each would be active in liberal politics. 
But the athlete who most, and least, resembled Ashe was Muhammad Ali. Born a year apart, each began with an alliterative Christian name—Cassius Clay in Ali’s case—and grew up in a prominent, segregated Southern city; Ashe in Richmond, Va.; Ali in Louisville, Ky. Two years after these photos were taken, Ali, by then a Muslim, changed his name (Alcindor did the same in 1971) and was forced to forfeit his heavyweight championship when he refused to serve in Vietnam. Later that year Ashe, by then a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, won the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills. At the time, Ali’s was the trendier form of protest. But Ashe’s quieter, more conservative version would be just as effective. His 1973 trip to play tennis in apartheid South Africa is credited by many with helping to weaken the government. The people there saw what a free black man could do.
These spare photos, of men in crew cuts and neat clothes, come from a different time, one more innocent and quietly confident—it’s hard to believe that the riots and upheavals of the late 60s are just a year away. In Ashe’s lonely determination to cross the country and prove to the world what he knew could do—what he knew a black man could do on a tennis court—we can see the beginning of his journey to significance. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he would have loved it.

More Scenes from Queens:

Monday, August 27: Getting to the Open
Tuesday, August 28: Night Matches
Wednesday, August 29: Photography
Thursday, August 30: Autographs
Friday, August 31: Food at the Open
Saturday, September 1: Practice Courts
Sunday, September 2: Getting In
Monday, September 3: Staying Connected
Tuesday, September 4: Ball Kids
Wednesday, September 5: The Corporate Connection
Thursday, September 6: The Outer Courts
Friday, September 7: Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Saturday, September 8: Arthur Ashe
Sunday, September 9: Empty Corridors

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