- Joel Drucker
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A glance at the Web sites of most tennis players summons a comment made by Winston Churchill: "History will be kind to me. For I shall write it." After more than 15 minutes scrolling through screen after screen of trivial tidbits on shopping, food and travel, it's clear Churchill's grand legacy is far from being realized. Information is not synonymous with insight.
But this month news comes of another tennis player's Web site with a far different approach. ArthurAshe.org, a tidy compilation of photos and videos, was launched on the 14th anniversary of Ashe's death (Feb. 6, 1993). Ashe died during Black History Month, a confluence of events that might have led him to say something like, "That may or may not be fortuitous. What do you think?"
A philosophical premise divides thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. Writes Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." It's best for athletes to be hedgehogs. The big thing: winning. Anything that doesn't aid attainment of that objective is irrelevant, a narrowing of vision that breeds isolation. Lacking teammates, tennis players can become even more self-absorbed. And like all athletes, they favor action over thought, believing that "book smart" truly means "less smart."
Arthur Ashe was a fox. He was the rare athlete who admitted how much he enjoyed school, loved reading (and writing) books, and valued the chance to actually ask questions of others.
"He liked to learn, but make no mistake, Arthur had his opinions," said Charlie Pasarell, Ashe's best friend and former UCLA and Davis Cup teammate. For example, Ashe believed African-Americans should spend much less time playing sports and more hours cracking books.
One particularly engaging section of the new Web site features a video, narrated by Sidney Poitier, about Ashe's win at the first U.S. Open -- fittingly enough, in the watershed year of 1968. Recounting America's turmoil as the backdrop to that victory, Ashe said, "You didn't get five minutes to breathe."
Yet even as Ashe was drawn to using athletic fame as a springboard for activism, he did so on his terms. He was raised in the South of the 1950s, a time when the civil rights movement was governed not strictly by pragmatic politics, but by nonviolence and religion. It's fitting, for example, that the Web site's photo montage of Ashe's life is accompanied by the understated Shaker song, "'Tis a joy to be simple."
Like Martin Luther King Jr., Ashe believed social change had a spiritual obligation to come kindly rather than at gunpoint. Ashe concurred heartily when he heard the following lines from black writer James Baldwin's book, "Notes of A Native Son": "I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
In the fall of 1973, Ashe traveled to South Africa. Whites thought he was swimming upstream. Blacks felt he was a sellout. But Ashe -- who that year was one of the world's top 10 players, playing 97 matches -- felt he could have an impact. Though many tennis players do their share of philanthropic work, it's not likely we'll see any taking overt stands that broach political ideology the way Ashe did. Then again, I recall him saying that perhaps it wasn't necessarily appropriate for society to demand an athlete do anything other than play his sport. Said Pasarell, "Arthur liked tossing ideas around, back and forth."
A striking photo from that trip to South Africa shows Ashe in his red tennis shirt (he brought color to tennis in many ways), surrounded by children who seemed aware that Ashe's presence demonstrated greater possibilities. On his fourth day in Johannesburg, Ashe met a black writer, Don Mattera, who had just been banned by the apartheid government; that is, stripped of his right to earn a living. Mattera was writing a poem about Ashe. It begins:
I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step evolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the rains of tolerance
Ironically, patience was not Ashe's forte on the court. His matches were typically won in a flurry of shot-making. That his game wasn't always effective frustrated Ashe. Though Ashe's many books are marked by pensive reflection light years removed from the hurly-burly of a tennis court, his most compelling is "Portrait in Motion," a diary of the 1973-74 tennis season.
"They see me so cool," Ashe wrote after being upset in the third round of the 1973 U.S. Open, "and give me all that crap about putting on cool and not caring and all that. Well, let me tell you, when you are this close to being the greatest in the world, in being supreme in this one skill you have devoted your life to, when you are that close but know you will never be closer well you think about it over and over at a time like this, however pointless it is."
"Portrait in Motion" was published in the spring of 1975. Soon after, Ashe attained the prize he'd always dreamed of: victory at the world's premier tournament, Wimbledon, and by the end of the year, recognition that he was at last the world's best tennis player.
Amazingly, Ashe had played his best tennis while taking on the duties as president of the fledgling players' union, the ATP.
"Most of us knew if we got involved with the ATP, our tennis would suffer," Pasarell said. "Leave it to Arthur to do the opposite."
Perhaps in some way, authoring a book filled with such doubt was a catharsis. In his ability to show that thought could indeed go hand-in-hand with action, Arthur Ashe was a rare athlete.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.
Joel Drucker examines Arthur Ashe's new Web site, which launched earlier this month on the 14th anniversary of his death.