Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ashe Article

LIFE Magazine, September 20 1968, "Arthur - the New King of the Courts," by D Wolf

As he turned back the field at the U.S. Open past week [sic], Arthur Ashe seemed a spectator to his own success. Unlike others, he did not fling out his arms and appeal to the heavens after errors nor did he slam his racket into anything but a tennis ball. Always, he was detached. "What I like best about myself," he said afterward, "is my demeanor. I'm seldom ruffled."

Indeed, during one critical game of his finals singles match with Tom Okker, Ashe had his eye on the ball and his mind on a steak. "I got a little hungry," he recalls, "and I kept thinking about the last meal I had - steak, rice, beans, and iced tea. Then I began thinking about the Davis Cup match I played against Spain. My mind kept wandering."

Detachment - that air of icy elegance - is part of Ashe's image now. It is an extra piece of identification that will enhance his celebrity. Paul Hornung had his harem, Ty Cobb his uncontrollable rage. Arthur Ashe has his cool. But characteristics that enlarge an athlete's image in victory can diminish it when he fails. For years, as he performed erratically, Ashe was criticized for his detachment. "A lot of people," says former tennis champ Jack Kramer, "felt he lacked competitive desire."

What he mostly lacked in those years, Ashe himself believes, was a sense of identity. Yes, he concentrates more intently on a match these days, he says, he makes fewer "stupid shots," he is in better physical condition. But mostly, he feels, he is able to assert himself more on the court because he is finally asserting himself off it. For years, as the only notable black player in tennis, he was content to be a phenomenon rather than a pioneer. "Five years ago," says Davis Cup Captain Donald Dell, "Arthur was worried about being accepted in a white man's world on a white man's terms."

The problem back then, Ashe suggests, is that most of his life he was pampered and protected. "I suppose my father always sheltered me," he says. "I heard about police brutality, but never saw anything like that. There were places we couldn't go, but we just accepted it. Now I realize that has a deep effect. You grow up thinking you're inferior and you're never quite sure of yourself."

From these roots, "preconditioned," he says, "to think in a segregated environment," Ashe began playing tournaments at clubs where he was frequently the only black man and just as frequently "mistaken for a waiter or busboy." For a long time he went along. He says that Dr. Walter Johnson, the black physcician who launched him into tennis," believed that the tournaments would use any excuse to keep us out. He made sure we didn't do any arguing." But after his graduation from UCLA in 1966, Ashe became piercingly conscious of "a social revolution among people my age. I finally stopped trying to become part of white society and started to establish a black identity for myself."

Sympathetic to the goals of the black athletes who were endorsing a boycott of international Olympic Games competition, Ashe almost quit the Davis Cup team last winter. "But I decided my situation was different. In tennis I'm the only one. I can make my protest heard by winning. If I choose not to play, who'd miss me?"

That decision helped motivate him, he says. "People don't listen to losers. Now, whenever I say something, people listen. I think the word is out now that if any tournament discriminates, I'll be screaming to the papers, blast them right out of the sky."

Besides speaking out, Ashe has worked with youth ghetto programs and after he is discharged from the Army in February plans to play professional tennis and also work as a volunteer for the Urban League. He analyzes the Urban League position as "not ultra-militant but not moderate or conservative either" and considers it suitable. "For me, black is beautiful," he says, "but white can be beautiful, too." Particularly, Arthur says, his white Davis Cup teammates. He enjoys their envy of his collection of beautiful girls of all colors, laughs when they tease him about being "our little militant." He knows they respect him for his candor. "I also know," he says, "that I'm not the favorite person of a lot of people in the black community. I'll be the first to admit I arrived late. I've got a backlog of unpaid dues."

Ashe Pictures