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The 2/21: The literature of Arthur Ashe, 28 years after he left us
No other tennis player spanned as many historic moments and iconic venues; as such, the narrative possibilities become epic.
Published Feb 06, 2021
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).
Painting from Tim Harper/harperforkids.org
No other tennis player spanned as many historic moments and iconic venues. Jim Crow Virginia in the ‘50s, the dynamic UCLA campus of the ‘60s and apartheid-governed South Africa in the ‘70s are three of the more notable places and eras that greatly shaped his journey. Add to the mix Ashe’s superb tennis legacy—winner of the first US Open in the watershed year of 1968, upset victor over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975, Davis Cup captain during John McEnroe's glory years of the early ‘80s—and the narrative possibilities become epic.
Begin with two intimate, elegantly crafted tales—one by a skilled observer, the other by a passionate participant. Levels of the Game, authored by New Yorker writer John McPhee in 1969, is a sparkling non-fiction novella, a dual profile of Ashe and a lifelong peer, Clark Graebner. Though only 149 pages long, Levels of the Game digs deep into each player’s distinct life story, personality, world views—and the way these factors forge a seemingly direct connection to their contrasting playing styles—all braided around their 1968 US Open semifinal match.
“Ashe’s backhand is one of the touchstones of modern tennis,” wrote McPhee. “Graebner is disturbed. He is thinking, ‘There it is. There Arthur goes, swinging freely.’ Arthur swinging freely is something that scares players of all nations.”
Back and forth the rally goes, across each man’s 25 years on earth, over the course of the four-set victory that propelled Ashe into the finals.
Though Ashe is not the protagonist of the 1986 memoir Kaffir Boy, his presence in it is transformational. Author Mark Mathabane was born in 1960 and grew up Black in the harshness of South Africa during apartheid. Finding his way to tennis, Mathabane got the chance to see Ashe up close when he made his landmark 1973 trip to South Africa.
“I marveled at how proudly he walked,” wrote Mathabane. “I had never seen a black man walk that proudly among whites. He appeared calm, cool and collected, even though he was surrounded by a sea of white faces.”
Eventually, aided by Ashe and Stan Smith, Mathabane made his way to America.
Ashe’s engagement with civil rights is explored extensively in University of Northern Illinois professor Eric Allen Hall’s 2014 book, Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era. This scholarly exploration offers a deep explanation into Ashe’s increasing political consciousness, juxtaposed skillfully against the tumult of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Those seeking a more comprehensive approach will savor University of Florida professor Raymond Arsenault’s 2018 biography, Arthur Ashe: A Life. Consider this the definitive history of Ashe, a thoroughly researched, well-paced tale that touches on seemingly every significant moment of Ashe’s life.
Jon Wertheim on the greatest tennis books:
With a level of detail similar to an English professor explicating a Shakespeare sonnet, Steve Flink’s 2012 book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, devotes a chapter to Ashe’s victory. And in 2015’s Ashe vs Connors, Peter Bodo provides a skillful book-length treatment as he tells the tale of each combatant’s journey to Centre Court, as well as a thoughtful report on the match.
Ashe himself left a considerable written legacy. In the 1980s, he set about writing a history of the Black American athlete. The end result was A Hard Road To Glory, a three-volume work that covered nearly 400 years, starting in 1619 and ending in the late 1980’s.
Two years after Ashe’s death came the 1995 release of Arthur Ashe On Tennis. Written with former Tennis Magazine editor Alex McNab, who’d worked with Ashe for more than a decade, the book offers bite-sized pieces on dozens of tennis topics, from volleys to handshakes to tennis parents and equipment. An added bonus: four short pieces on Ashe by players Billie Jean King and Lori McNeil and journalists McPhee and New York Times writer George Vecsey. McPhee’s look back on the time he spent covering Ashe in his mid-20s is heartbreaking: “More than half of his life was behind him.”
Subject, scholar, instructor—a troika of powerful roles that add up to a deep body of work; but arguably of secondary importance when compared to Ashe’s soul-bearing autobiographical tales. The first was Advantage Ashe, a short self-portrait published when Ashe was just 23, well before any of his Grand Slam wins, major Davis Cup efforts or participation as a co-founder of the ATP.
In 1981, shortly after his playing career ended due to a sudden heart attack, the 38-year-old Ashe released Off the Court. Co-written with longstanding New York Times tennis writer Neil Amdur, Off the Court is a thoughtful retrospective of Ashe at the crossroads. Since the book came out during his first year at the helm of Davis Cup, Ashe remained concurrently engaged with the tennis world and also continued to immerse himself in broader social concerns.
As he wrote, “The abrupt end of my tennis career only accelerated my search for another way I can make a contribution. I don’t want to be remembered mainly because I won Wimbledon.”
Sadly, a decade later, autobiography took on another flavor. In 1992, around the time Ashe publicly announced he had contracted AIDS, he commenced work with biographer Arnold Rampersad on what would prove a posthumous memoir, Days of Grace. As you might expect, the tone is spiritual and often elegiac, never more so than in a letter Ashe addresses to his five-year-old daughter, Camera. Ashe was almost certain he would be dead when she at last had the chance to take in his words.
“I may not be walking with you all the way,” wrote Ashe, “or even much of the way, as I walk with you now.”
Beginning in June 1973, Ashe kept a diary for 12 months. (This was a popular sports book format in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) What I like most of all is the story’s immediacy, a visceral and vivid primary source, smack from the thick of Ashe’s career.
Partnering with Sports Illustrated tennis writer Frank Deford, Ashe opened the book at a time when politics and tennis powerfully intersected: the fledgling ATP’s boycott of Wimbledon. Five months later came Ashe’s breakthrough trip to South Africa, as both competitor and social activist.
“The nonwhites have been cheering brazenly for me,” Ashe wrote in his diary on November 22, 1973, “without a great deal of concern for the niceties of evenhanded tennis crowd etiquette.”
There it was, the life of Ashe, a constant and seamless weave of politics and tennis.
Right alongside the sharpness of Ashe’s mind comes the anguish of his heart. Having turned 30 in 1973, Ashe was all too painfully aware that the possibility of future grand triumphs was slowing slipping through his fingers. Besides acknowledging that he was not quite as good in the clutch as such elders as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, or peers John Newcombe and Ilie Nastase, Ashe that year also played and lost his first matches to rising stars Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.
“Jesus, I feel like an old man,” Ashe wrote shortly after losing to Borg in the third round of the US Open. “I’m thirty years old and teeny-boppers are upsetting me. It takes something like this to make you aware of how really short an athlete’s life is. It seems like the day before yesterday that I was the kid, beating the old man.”
Portrait in Motion was published in early 1975. Later that spring, Ashe beat Borg in the finals of the prestigious WCT Finals in Dallas. Soon after came his run through Wimbledon. In 1973 and ’74 Ashe won five titles and lost 13 finals. In ’75 alone, he reached 13 finals—and won eight.
Perhaps deep thought had liberated Ashe enough to trigger extensive action. Sometimes a book is not just a book.