The Return of Arthur Ashe

For those who believe in fairytales there is hope. Real, tangible, flesh-and-blood hope lives and breathes in the person of Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., a onetime scrawny, myopic kid who rose and rose in the tennis world to be a legend in his time. Of course, it wasn’t the stuff epics are made of, but a record is a record, and no one else was better than Ashe at coming in second best.

Looking at it from the early days, it’s somewhat of an accomplishment that Ashe could even play in big-time tennis competition. As a ten-year-old black kid living in Richmond, Virginia in 1953, little Arthur wasn’t welcomed with open arms to play on the friendly country club courts in the area. But a saint in the person Dr. R. Walter Johnson, who lived in nearby Lynchburg, Va., took it upon himself to organize a junior development tennis program for promising young blacks. Johnson would chauffeur his proteges from tournament to tournament in the American Tennis Association (the black) circuit, and later, when things began opening up, to tourneys under the sanction of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) where they could compete for national rankings. From the day Arthur Ashe first jumped into the back seat of Johnson’s old Buick, the world lost a great brain sugeon. “If 1 had gone through normal [tennis] channels, I might be a doctor instead of a tennis player,” mused Ashe on his early travels in that black sedan.

But Arthur’s fate was sealed, and it was kismet that he should spend the next few decades distinguishing himself in the pursuit of a fuzzy white ball. Of course, no one starts out trying to be second-best, and for quite some time it seemed as though Arthur would go all the way to the top. So it came as no surprise when he walked away from the rolling hills of the UCLA campus with a diploma and the NCAA singles championship.

Then the second place sticker found its mark and took hold in Ashes record book. From 1965 through 67, he was No. 2 in the U.S. But second place is often pooh-poohed as only a stop-off on ones way to Number Oneness. And so it was with now three-time Number Twoness, Arthur Ashe. For an all-too-brief moment, Ashe spent a year learning what being tops felt like. In 1968, after winning the first U.S. Open and being the first American to win at Forest Hills in thirteen years, Ashe was ranked at the head of the heap on the American roster. But the crown soon slipped. By ’69 he was back to the old No. 2.

On September 16, 1970, Ashe signed a contract with Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis. And with his signature, the newly-turned pro signed into the chapter in his life that would cement his also-ran image: Arthur Ashe is in the WCT record book as the Ail-Time Runner-up.

In the fifteen WCT finals he played in his first four years on the circuit, he lost eleven. “Everybody all of a sudden wants to know why I can’t win a final,’ he muttered defensively after having lost his seventh tournament in eight final appearances in the first half of 1973. Indeed, after each new loss, members of the press grilled him for an answer to his apparent inability to convert a match into a trophy.

Never mind that he had been the mainstay of the U.S. Davis Cup team for three winning years, losing only four matches out of twenty-six. And never mind that in 1968 he had won Forest Hills and been No. 1 in this country. Or, that in 1972 he won the winter WCT playoffs in Rome. People soon forgot,too, that he held the Australian Championship in 1970, and won the Stockholm Open last year. Ashe could point to his past accomplishments till his racket arm fell off, but nobody was convinced that he was a winner.

Long after fans were tired of seeing him lose, Ashe began to figure that something was going wrong. It was New Year’s 1974 that he set his sights on winning the WCT Championship and Wimbledon. That was the year, he decided, to triumph. He was turning thirty-one, and it was now or never to finally win the big ones. Too bad he hadn’t picked another year to do it in, because 74 turned out to be the best second place year in his professional career. The perennial bridesmaid couldn’t hook a trophy.

Finally, Arthur Ashe was convinced. Maybe he couldn’t win the big ones. Perhaps he was destined to be good, but not great. “I think about how close I am to being the very best in the world,” he confessed, “and that is so very, very frustrating…I tell myself there is too much emphasis on winning…” But even to Arthur Ashe that was beginning to sound like a cop-out, and time was running out.

Someone once said that it is the true mark of a champion to be able to assess his mistakes and work them out of existence by himself. The real winner goes into himself and discovers his weaknesses, and works alone to overcome. Perhaps that is why Arthur Ashe has pulled out of it. Ashe, the ever-private person, went to the source, the one who knows him best: Arthur Ashe. Whatever agony he went through in self-communion, it was enough. Arthur Ashe emerged in 1975 a winner.

Slowly. The first major competition of the year was the Australian Open – one of the Grand Slam events, and a washout for Ashe. The U.S. Pro Indoor, circuit opener for WCT, saw him defeated in the quarterfinals by Chilean Jaime Fillol. The first two Green Group tournaments of the year, in Richmond and Bologna, Italy, Ashe was right in the groove again – coming in second.

February 23, 1975. That’s the date Arthur Ashe started being a champion. He beat Borg in Barcelona, and the next week he beat home town boy Tom Okker in Rotterdam, and two weeks later, he won the Munich International. “Winning is a habit,” he was later to say, and like a chain smoker, Ashe was lighting up one court after another.

Ashe arrived at Moody Coliseum for the WCT finals after four victories on the tour, a number of wins it had taken him four years to accumulate in the previous seasons. Sellout crowds here in Dallas were witness to the fact: Arthur Ashe ended a seven year drought and won a big one. The all-time runner-up was now in the WCT record book again, only this time it was as Champion.

But the real test, The Big One of big ones, Wimbledon, was still not included in Ashes resume. A true champion wins more than one major championship a year, as well Arthur knew. Not that anyone else was looking for him to win Wimbledon. After all, WCT was just a fluke, a chance win on a good day for Ashe. He still had not shaken the second string stigma in the minds of most. Ashe went quietly through his matches like a cat burglar, stealing closer and closer to the crown jewel. Then, he crept into the finals.

Folks in Dallas could have told them so. They had seen him get tough here in May. He had even told people here that playing Connors was similar to playing Borg – you had to give them short chip shots to minimize their tendency to eat the ball and spit it back out in bullets at you. He beat Borg that way at Moody, and he beat him that way in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. It was time to see if he could apply that science to Connors, the defending champ.

The rest, as they say, is history. Arthur Ashe had won the two most important championships of the year and is gunning for a third at Forest Hills early this month. The cool, introspective, refined man of tennis is on top.

How did he do it? How did he break out of that No. 2 mold?

“Winning is a habit,” he repeated. It seemed enough of an explanation to him.

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