tennis served fresh

Arthur Ashe: A Life

By Raymond Arsenault

It the WAS all-black LATE American JUNE 1955, Tennis and Association a boys and girls (ATA) tournament was about sponsored to begin on by the public courts at Turkey Thicket Park, in the University Heights section of Northeast Washington, D.C. One girl eager to play that day was Doris Cammack—an up-and-coming fifteen-year-old harboring dreams of be- coming the next Althea Gibson—the talented young woman from Harlem who six years earlier had become the first black female to breach the color line in competitive tennis. A victory in the Washington tournament would solidify Doris’s ranking as a regional star, but as the first round began she faced an unexpected problem. On that sultry Saturday morning in June, her dreams took a tumble when she learned an odd number of competitors had registered for the girls draw, leaving her with no girl to play in the opening round. Her only option, the ATA organizers explained, was to play a first- round exhibition match against an eleven-year-old boy borrowed from the male draw.

Though disappointed, Doris reluctantly agreed to the unusual ar- rangement. Yet when she saw how small and scrawny her opponent actu- ally was—a boy with arms as thin as the handle of his wooden racket—she balked. “I’m not playing against him,” she sneered, convinced she had been set up as a foil in what would almost certainly be a farcical match. Only after sensing that pulling out of the match would hurt the little boy’s feelings— and after being assured by ATA officials that he was “pretty good”—did she agree to take the court against her four-foot-eight-inch, seventy-pound op- ponent.

What happened next stunned the small crowd of spectators that had gathered to watch an impromptu battle of the sexes. Brandishing amazing foot speed and a slingshot forehand that allowed him to hit the ball with sur- prising power and accuracy, the little boy took poor Doris to the proverbial cleaners. Losing only a handful of games, he needed less than an hour to win two sets and the match. Doris did her best to smile in defeat as she walked to the net and reached down to shake the boy’s hand, but whatever confidence she had mustered before the match was gone. A few weeks later she gave up her ATA dreams altogether, disabused of any notion that she would find glory on a tennis court.

Little Art, as he was known then, was polite and respectful in victory, just as his parents had taught him to be. Yet he also felt the full flush of victory, even at the age of eleven. Soon his aspirations would move beyond mere victory as he began to dream of becoming a tennis star, but he never lost his manners or his sportsmanship—or, for that matter, his boyish en- thusiasm for a game that brought him so much joy and satisfaction. Years later, Doris, who kept close tabs on her young conqueror’s path to stardom, had difficulty keeping her composure when recounting her brief brush with a life ultimately marked as much by tragedy as by triumph. While laughing at the story of her own demise as a competitive tennis player, she could not help but tear up when recalling the fate of Arthur Ashe, a valiant and coura- geous man who would succumb to complications related to AIDS at the age of forty-nine.1

Nearly forty years after Doris Cammack’s humiliation and more than a decade after the close of his storied career, Arthur found himself at the center of a more serious but equally telling scene unfolding in the nation’s capital. This time he was in Washington to participate in a protest march outside the White House. The issue that had drawn him there was the mis- treatment of Haitian refugees by immigration and law enforcement officials representing the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Randall Robinson—who grew up with Arthur in Richmond and later collaborated with him on issues related to Africa, race, and colonialism—had asked his old friend to come, and Arthur, loyal to a fault, could not in good conscience say no. Jointly sponsored by the NAACP and Robinson’s twenty-year-old  organization TransAfrica, the protest march drew a diverse group of two thousand participants and resulted in nearly one hundred arrests. Only one of those arrested was a sports celebrity. For years, Ashe had urged his fellow athletes to speak out on social justice issues, but relatively few had answered his call. In the Haitian protest, he was the lone representative of the sports world—a situation that did not surprise anyone familiar with American pol- itics.

What was surprising, however, was Ashe’s decision to take part in the protest even though he knew a terminal disease had reduced his medical condition to the breaking point. For nearly ten years, he had struggled with AIDS, a disease acquired from a blood transfusion administered during re- covery from heart surgery in 1983. While he had first learned of his AIDS diagnosis in 1988—and his condition had only been public knowledge for five months at the time of the Washington march—his identification with this dreaded disease had already changed his life beyond recognition. Many of the changes were burdensome, and few observers would have blamed him if he had chosen to retreat from public view, spending what remained of his life with family and close friends.

But withdrawal was never an option for a man who had long identified with civic and social responsibility. Ashe followed his conscience even when it meant putting his comfort—or even his life—at risk. The racial prejudice that inspired the differential treatment of light-skinned Cuban refugees and their dark-skinned counterparts from Haiti was, in his view, simply too ma- levolent to ignore, whatever the personal consequences of an action against it might be.

Arthur’s wife and doctors worried that the trip to Washington would tax his strength beyond acceptable limits—not an unreasonable assumption considering he had lost nearly 20 percent of his weight in the last year, reduc- ing his body to a gaunt 128 pounds hanging on a six-foot-one frame. Unfor- tunately, his caretakers’ fears were soon confirmed. The day after his arrest, and within hours of his return to his home in New York City, he suffered a mild heart attack. Only brief hospitalization was necessary, and his recovery was substantial enough to allow him to live for another five months before succumbing to pneumonia. The Washington episode spoke volumes about the depth of his commitment to active and responsible citizenship. Those who marched with him that day—or anyone else who read the newspaper accounts of his arrest—could not help but admire his determination to stand up for his belief in justice.2

These two anecdotes, separated by decades of history and experience, represent a small sample of the stories that make Arthur Ashe’s saga one of the most distinctive in American history. No one, it seems safe to say, will ever duplicate his extraordinary life, which could have been conjured by an imaginative novelist. The stories that punctuate his biography are real, how- ever, and both the nation and the world are better for them. The dynamic arc of his experiences—from a childhood of limited promise in the Jim Crow South to iconic status as a world-class athlete—followed an upward and sometimes soaring trajectory of maturation and growth. Never complacent, he had a restless spirit and an ever-searching intellect. Ironically enough, all of this philosophical and experiential turmoil was expressed in a reasoned, deliberate style that became his personal trademark. How he became this man, so calm and poised on the outside yet so driven and turbulent on the inside, is the subject of this book.

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From the book Arthur Ashe: A Life by Raymond Arsenault. Copyright © 2018 by Raymond Arsenault. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.