This week on Tennis Channel, we're looking back some of the sport's most important players, personalities and moments throughout its colorful history. On Tuesday, from 12-3 p.m. ET, Tennis Channel Live will focus on Arthur Ashe. Here's a preview, and a present-day perspective.
Maybe one way, or yet another way, to know Arthur Ashe is to describe the morning in February 1975 when he met one of that era’s most fabled actors, Richard Burton.
Long before Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Burton was one-half of a couple that commanded massive headlines. He had been married to two-time Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most famous actresses in the world, from the 1950s to the ‘70s. Burton himself was also iconic, during that same time earning two Tony awards and seven Oscar nominations, his booming Welsh brogue a perfect fit for such grand roles as King Arthur, Hamlet and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The setting for the Ashe-Burton meeting was the Hotel Negresco, an elegant, marble-columned spot in Nice, France, that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea. There was Ashe, flanked by two fellow pros, Dick Dell and Fred McNair—the trio headed that day to play a tournament in Barcelona. As they walked through the lobby, a familiar voice rang out. Straight out of Shakespeare.
“Mr. Ashe! Mr. Ashe!”
“This wasn’t just any voice, this was him,” McNair told me last week. “Did God just drop out of the ceiling?”
As the low-key Ashe and theatrical Burton spoke, the actor took command.
Who, asked Burton, is that impish young American, Jimmy Connors? Have you played him?
Yes, replied Ashe, three times.
How have you done?
Not well. He’s won them all.
Very well, said Burton. He continued: The next time you two play, I will bet 100 pounds on the impish American.
It will be the best 100 pounds I’ll ever lose.
Ashe, at Wimbledon in 1975. (Getty Images)
That winter, amid a long stretch of events in Europe, the 31-year-old Ashe served as mentor to McNair, showing the 24-year-old man nicknamed “Rico” how to navigate his way through the continent and simultaneously compete, practice and savor the food, culture and other attractions available to a young, handsome, well-compensated athlete.
Ashe then stood at a crossroads. It had been more than six years since his breakthrough win at the 1968 US Open. Over that time, Ashe had frequently nibbled near the top, but often came up short in such big events like Wimbledon and a host of others—Ashe would be the first to admit his 1970 Australian Open win had come versus a shallow field and was therefore hardly significant.
The 1972 US Open final had probably been the most crushing. Versus Ilie Nastase, the talented and frequently rude Romanian, Ashe had led two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth, theoretically an insurmountable lead given that Ashe owned one of the best serves in the game and the match was being played on slick grass. But it had slipped through his fingers.
During the awards ceremony, Ashe stood, tranquil as ever, but also unquestionably devastated.
“More than once,” said his close friend and manager, Donald Dell, “he would call me in the middle of the night and shout out, ‘How could I have lost that match? To that guy?”
As if such contemporaries as Nastase, Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Stan Smith weren’t challenging enough, by 1973, Ashe had seen the future fast approaching, losing matches to rising stars Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg. In his book, Portrait in Motion, a diary that covered 12 months starting in June 1973, Ashe wrote following a third-round US Open loss to Borg,
“Jesus, I feel like an old man. 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 I was the kid, beating the old man.”
Yet while tennis occupied nearly 100 percent of the bandwidth for the likes of Laver, Connors and Borg, such laser focus was hardly the case for Ashe. Since the ‘60s, he had given of himself to numerous social causes, be it as speaker, mentor, donor. Along with his best friend, Charlie Pasarell, he had founded the National Junior Tennis League, an extensive program aimed at inner-city youth. There had also come a variety of corporate commitments, with everything from equipment and clothing manufacturers to a mattress company to a resort to one of the world’s leading consumer products firms.
But likely nothing meant more to him during the early 1970s than the trips he took to South Africa in 1973 and ’74. It had taken much for him to be granted entry into this nation then ruled by apartheid. Once there, though, Ashe’s trip had been revolutionary, rippling throughout the world. Alas, inside the lines, he had once again come close, but not quite as far as he’d desired. Both times in South Africa, he’d lost in the finals to the impish young American.
Looking back nearly 50 years later, one wonders if the time in South Africa helped Ashe reassess himself and even see his tennis in a new light. Was he profoundly touched and even inspired by the poetry of a South African writer, Don Mattera? For all the words that had been written about Ashe to that point – including a Life Magazine cover story and a dual profile that took up an entire issue of The New Yorker—perhaps none more deftly captured his subtle yet emphatic emotion than Mattera’s verse:
Your youthful face
hiding a pining, anguished spirit, and
I loved you brother,
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul
Unquestionably, the Arthur Ashe of 1975 was a much different tennis player than the one who’d stumbled often in the early ‘70s. Having won three titles in 1974, by May ’75, he’d already taken five, including a victory over Borg in the finals of the season-ending WCT Finals in Dallas—an event then on a par with the current ATP Finals).
By the time Wimbledon began, he was feeling better about his tennis than he had in many years. Better yet, this was not the innocent self-belief of youth, but the earned confidence of experience. Seeded sixth, he made his way to the finals, most impressively with a quarterfinal win over Borg and a five-set semi victory versus the formidable Australian, Tony Roche.
Ashe with South African heart surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard at the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town, South
Africa. (AP Photo)
Naturally, and downright logically, Connors was the opponent. The subtext ran deep, most notably because Connors and his manager, Bill Riordan, were suing the ATP—and therefore, since Ashe at the time was the organization’s president, the two Wimbledon finalists were in litigation with one another. Added to the mix was that while Ashe certainly respected Connors’ tennis, he was miffed that Connors declined to play Davis Cup, refused to join the ATP and often behaved in a rather brash manner.
The Friday night prior to the match, Ashe dined with Dell, Pasarell, and McNair. A strategy was hatched that ran counter to Ashe’s usual slash-and-burn power game. Ditching much of that, Ashe instead would frequently chip his groundstrokes soft, low and short. He would also remember to lob frequently and swing his serve wide in the deuce court.
As the world saw—that is, just about everyone but McNair—it worked flawlessly. After winning the first two sets, 6-1, 6-1, in 41 minutes, Ashe lost the third, 7-5, fell behind 3-0 in the fourth, then won six of the next seven games to take the fourth, 6-4. Fittingly, on championship point he carved one wide in the deuce court to set up a sitter forehand smash.
Due to the terms of an airline ticket he had purchased at the start of the year, McNair had left the London the morning of the final. He and Ashe had agreed to talk the Tuesday after.
An ecstatic McNair pressed his mentor for details.
Arthur, Arthur, tell me everything, tell me everything.
Rico, just hold on, just hold on.
But this is amazing. You won, you won.
Rico, you won’t believe what happened.
As McNair listened, Ashe giggled. To be sure, he was incredibly global. But as McNair had seen all year and Ashe’s peers had known for more than a decade, he could also be profoundly playful.
The Wimbledon final was then played on a Saturday, the tournament capped off that night with the Wimbledon Ball, honoring the champions. Of course it had been a glorious evening for Ashe. As was the tradition, he’d taken the opening dance with the ladies’ singles champion, Billie Jean King. On and on it went.
Well past midnight, Ashe returned to his hotel. James, the evening concierge, handed him a note: “Meet me at 8:30 Sunday morning at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Come collect your money. Richard Burton.”