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Steve Flink: Arthur Ashe Remembrances

2/25/2008 7:28:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Just over 15 years ago, on the sixth of February in 1993, when he was only 49, Arthur Ashe passed away. The end of his life marked a time of immeasurable sadness for the world of tennis, and for the world at large. Ashe was considerably more significant than the sum of his accomplishments. To be sure, he achieved prodigiously on many levels, capturing the first United States Open in 1968, securing the Australian Open title two years later, and ruling majestically in 1975 on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon, celebrating a defining moment in his career with that triumph. Moreover, he was an excellent Davis Cup player, leading the American teams to three straight championships from 1968-70. In the mid-1970's, Ashe became President of the ATP at a crucial stage of that organization's evolution.
Unofficially, before the advent of computer rankings, Ashe was awarded the No. 2 world ranking in 1968 by some authorities, finishing that season at No. 3 on the lists of other experts. In 1975, Jimmy Connors--- despite not winning a major title all year--- was the No. 1 ranked player on the ATP computer. But every authentic critic who weighed in on the subject placed Ashe unequivocally at the very top of his profession, awarding him the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking, believing he was entirely worthy of wearing a label entitled, " best tennis player in the world." He performed at the highest levels of the game for a remarkably long time, breaking into the world's top ten as an amateur in 1965 at 22. He seldom drifted out of that exclusive territory until suffering a heart attack at 36 in July of 1979. Ashe stood at No. 7 in the world when that happened, a tribute to his enduring greatness. At the end of that year, he had quadruple bypass surgery, and his career was over.

Two years later, he began an impressive five year stint as U.S. Davis Cup captain, handling that role more than ably. The American squads during the Ashe captaincy--- featuring, among others, Ashe's polar opposite in demeanor, John McEnroe-fared quite well, twice capturing the Cup under his calm guidance (1981-82), reaching the final round on one other occasion. As both a player and a captain, Ashe pursued his business imperturbably; he was the master of self discipline, a man who contained his emotions thoroughly and admirably, a leader who set an example not only with what he said but with what he chose not to put into words. As former Senator Bill Bradley--- who helped the New York Knicks garner two N.B.A. Championships in the 1970's--- explained about Ashe in his 1993 eulogy, "Arthur did not boast. He thought before he spoke. Like a good poet, he used silence to his advantage, and made his restraint a strength. He believed what he believed, and knew why he believed it."

Bradley was right on target with that assessment. Ashe simply refused to lose his cool in the public arena. That was no simple task. As the first great African American male tennis player, he knew he would not be judged as a player or person by the same standards as all of his peers. He was unabashedly proud about the color of his skin, and yet it was also a substantial burden he carried with him all through life. Nevertheless, he came to terms with his plight, and was very comfortable with who he was and how he wanted to pursue his craft. He navigated his way through rough waters, using the steadfastness of his character to reach safe harbors.

Across the years of his playing days, he handled some arduous situations as only he could, and cared much more passionately about winning big matches than many observers realized. A prime example was his 1972 U.S. Open final round contest at Forest Hills against the rambunctious Romanian Ilie Nastase. Ashe had played some of the finest tennis of his career to reach the title round, accounting for Wimbledon champion Stan Smith in the quarterfinals. Against Nastase, Ashe led two sets to one, and then moved ahead 3-1 with a break point for 4-1 in the fourth set. A service break there would have virtually guaranteed Ashe a second U.S. Open crown, but he drove a topspin backhand return long. That was a point he would surely have wanted to have back. Although Ashe advanced to 4-2 in the fourth set, he could not sustain his authority as Nastase distracted him with some typically churlish behavior. Ashe bowed in five agonizing sets, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.

When it was over, he sat in his chair, his head in his hands, fighting in vain to keep the tears from falling down his face. During the presentation ceremony, he praised the gifted Nastase for his flowing talent, but gently lectured him about his conduct. And then he took the long, lonely walk back from the stadium to clubhouse and the locker room. I was working as a young reporter in training at the time for Bud Collins, keeping track of statistics while he called the match for CBS with Jack Kramer. When the match was over, I was supposed to join Collins in the press room to provide statistical backup for him as he wrote his newspaper column.

But I was a young 20 at the time, and Ashe was a hero. I hated watching him get so close to another major triumph, only to see victory elude him under the most excruciating of circumstances. I was so shattered by the Ashe defeat that I walked back to the clubhouse myself, found a private corner, and cried briefly yet uncontrollably. When I returned to the press box twenty minutes later, a perplexed Collins asked why I had disappeared. I was candid with him about my emotions, and he fully understood.

In any event, four months later, I introduced myself to Ashe at a WCT tournament he was playing at the Albert Hall in London. I asked if he would be willing to do an interview, and he graciously consented. We covered a wide range of topics, but I felt compelled to ask him about that loss to Nastase in New York at the Open. I wanted to know how much it had stung, how long it had lingered. I knew that he had told friends right after the match, "I guess I wanted it too badly." But I thought he would say now, in January of 1973, long after the fact, that he was over it. I expected him to say he had moved on. He surprised me with his answer. "I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that match," he conceded. "If I could have held my serve two more times in that fourth set, I would have won a second U.S. Open. It bothers me a lot."

Ashe was 29 when he fell so narrowly short at the 1972 U.S. Open. He seemed slightly on the decline the next two years. But then, in 1975, he struck gold, enjoying his greatest season as a competitor. In the spring, at the prestigious WCT Finals in Dallas--- then one of the six top events in the sport--- he toppled Bjorn Borg in a four set indoor final. At Wimbledon, he upended the rapidly ascending Borg again in the quarterfinals, handing the Swede his last defeat on those lawns until he was beaten by John McEnroe in 1981. In the semifinals, Ashe held back the tenacious Tony Roche in five sets. That set the stage for the masterpiece of his career.

In the preceding two years, Ashe had lost three times to the defending champion Jimmy Connors. Connors had upended Ashe in the finals of the 1973 U.S. Pro Championships, and the 1973 and 1974 South African Open championship matches. He had never beaten his left-handed adversary before, and would not defeat him again. But, in the biggest match they would ever contest, in the final of the most prestigious tennis event of them all, Ashe confounded Connors with as cerebral a display as he would ever give. Until that season, Ashe had always been--- more or less-- a go for broke, hit or miss player. When he was on, he could blow opponents off the court; if he was off, he could wound himself irreparably with too many unprovoked mistakes. 

The fact remained that Ashe was a brilliant serve-and-volleyer. His first serve was one of the game's best, most notably in the deuce court. On that side, he could employ his superb wide slice or go with the flat one down the middle. His delivery was hard to read.

On the backhand side, both off the ground and on the volley, he was dazzling. He punched the backhand volley with authority and consistency both down the line and crosscourt. His backhand ground stroke was sweepingly beautiful. I will never forget his cavalcade of backhand return and passing shot winners during a 1969 Wimbledon semifinal against Rod Laver. This was devastatingly potent stuff. Ashe was sprinkling the court with blinding topspin backhand placements, and even the great Laver was reduced to becoming a spectator on the other side of the net. For me, it was a treat to be present for that soaring clash.

With typical pride and perspicacity, Laver survived a shot making avalanche from Ashe and turned the match around convincingly, winning 2-6, 6-2 9-7, 6-0. But for one set against a man on his way to a second Grand Slam, Ashe was on the edge of invincibility. The problem at that time for Ashe was that he had a glaring weakness on his forehand ground stroke and his low forehand volley. Off the ground on that side, he lacked consistency because his grip was too continental. On the low forehand volley, he had too little margin for error.

Be that as it may, let's return to the subject of that Wimbledon 1975 final against Connors. By then, Ashe had learned to temporize, to modify his game, to play the percentages as well as taking the right kinds of risks. And he had worked assiduously on improving the low forehand volley. As he told me later that year, "I'm concentrating on not hitting that low forehand volley into the net as I did in the past. I would say 80% of those forehand volley misses were in the net. Now, I may miss it, but I'm going to hit it over the baseline. And now, if it does go over the net, it usually goes in. My backhand volley is really an offensive weapon whereas the forehand volley, unless I've got a sitter, is a shot to set up the next one."

Ashe's nearly impeccable execution on the low forehand volley was one of the keys to his improbable 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Connors at Wimbledon in one of the biggest upsets in modern times on the fabled Centre Court. His strategic acumen that day was nothing short of stupendous. He baffled Connors with a wide array of spins and speeds, exchanging his normally potent ground strokes for subtle and effective variations of pace, swinging his slice serve wide in the deuce court to stifle Connors on his two-handed backhand return, pulling his rival off the court time and again with that play. As Ashe said, "I hit that wide serve in the deuce court better than anybody else. I can swing a left-hander wider than any other right-handed big server."

Recollecting the triumph over Connors for me in an interview ten years later, Ashe pointed out, "The shots were just flowing for me that day. I wasn't trying to hit the shots. They were just coming off my racket." Perhaps he felt that sense of security because he was absolutely convinced he was going to win that match. As Ashe recalled, "I had the strangest feeling that I just could not lose that day. I remember looking up at the clock for the first time and it was only 41 minutes past two o'clock and the score was already 6-1, 6-1 for me. I said to myself, 'I just can't lose today. I'm going to win. That's all there is to it.'"

And yet, Ashe realized that looking up at the score and recognizing how little time had passed was problematic. He told me, "A part of me was saying,' Hey, I'm not supposed to be beating Connors so easily.' When you are in the zone as I was, your perspective of time is completely warped. What snapped me out of that time warp against Connors was seeing precisely how little time had elapsed. In hindsight, I wish I had never looked at that clock because that put me back on the left side of my brain, the logical part. Playing in the zone is playing on the right side of your brain; it is creative, mystical, letting your body do what it knows how to do. Logic, rationality and reasoning don't interfere. I really think if I had not looked up at that clock, I would have beaten Connors in straight sets."

After Connors battled back with customary spark and fury to take the third set, he took a 3-0 lead in the fourth set. Ashe was only down one service break, but Connors was coming at him ferociously. Ashe had a critical decision to make: should he stick with his game plan or start blasting away more audaciously as he would have done in years gone by? Wisely, Ashe stayed with his original strategy and collected six of the last seven games to complete the triumph. I don't think it is hyperbolic to suggest that Ashe's startling success against Connors in the game's showcase event was one of the great sports moments of the 20th Century. As he summed up the accomplishment for me in one of our last interviews, Ashe said, "Winning Wimbledon provided a very satisfying capstone for my career. I felt against Connors that it was in the cards, that I had nothing to do with it. The gods had ordained it and that was the way it was supposed to be. It was like divine intervention or mystical insight."

As his closest friend and agent Donald Dell said in the 1980's, "I've had more people say to me that they remember what they were doing at the moment they first heard Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon. And the reason they remember is it was such an historic moment, such a great moment for a man everyone loved and admired. Ironically, it reminded me of the exact moment John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I was walking down a hall in law school when someone said, 'The President's been shot.' And for 20 years, I've heard people say things like, 'I was combing my hair when I heard about it.' Now don't get me wrong. Arthur winning Wimbledon was not of the same importance, but the analogy is still there. One guy wrote me a letter and said he was driving down the road when he heard Arthur won and he pulled off to the side and started to cry."

It was apparent then, and still is today, that Arthur Ashe was much more than a great tennis player. He transcended the sport because he represented it so well, because he had so much intelligence, vision, and stature. He was one of the most important people ever to perform in the upper reaches of tennis. Some outstanding tennis players were cut out solely for that designation, and might well have failed in other endeavors. Ashe was an individual who would have achieved prominence no matter what he had chosen to do. That was why the USTA's decision to name its new 23,000 seat main arena, "Arthur Ashe Stadium" in 1997 was so appropriate. Ashe was in so many ways larger than the game he had played. It was an honor well received by the public and richly deserved by Ashe. But I deeply regret that the USTA did not see fit to bestow Ashe with that kind of recognition while he was still among us.

I got to know him pretty well over the years, and always looked forward to interviewing him or crossing paths by chance. I admired his agile mind, his erudite manner, his quiet conviction. He saw himself not simply as an African American or a champion tennis player, but in the final analysis as a citizen of the world. He hoped that through his actions, and by his example, he might just modestly improve the human condition. All through his lifetime, Arthur Ashe irrefutably did just that, and, to say the least, a whole lot more.

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