He captured all of the major singles championships save the French Open, became a perennial member of the world’s top ten, and was regarded by the vast majority of authorities as the best tennis player on the planet in 1975. He spearheaded the United States Davis Cup triumphs from 1968-70, became an eminent captain of the American Cup squads from 1981-85, and was an unparalleled ambassador without portfolio for the game. Everywhere he went, in country after country, across the decades, this extraordinary man was celebrated as one of the most admirable sportsmen ever to step on a tennis court, revered for the unbending dignity he displayed in the public arena, and admired ardently by the public because he transcended the sport he played so dynamically. He was not simply a prolific tennis achiever, but more significantly a champion of the human spirit and an individual who was substantially larger than the sum of his achievements.
Arthur Ashe died on February 6, 1993, and so we honor the twentieth anniversary of his passing, and remember him above all else as a noble citizen in the tennis universe. Ashe was only 49 when he left us two decades ago. He had realized a wide range of his largest goals, but he surely would have accomplished so much more across the board had he lived the longer life he deserved. Ashe was, after all, a man willing and able to take on the toughest challenges, to stretch his considerable intellect as long and as far as it would take him, to pursue excellence in every endeavor.
The crowning moments of his career were, of course, his victories at the first U.S. Open in 1968 and his Wimbledon triumph seven years later. The triumph at the Open was particularly gratifying for Ashe, who was then a Lieutenant in the United States Army. That was a landmark occasion in the first year of Open Tennis, and Ashe was seeded fifth behind Australian stalwarts Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe. The prevailing view among the cognoscenti was that the redoubtable Laver would win that tournament, thus following up on his Wimbledon victory a few months earlier. The left-handed Laver was the one man in that event that Ashe almost surely could not have toppled. Not until 1974 did he defeat the Australian shotmaking wizard for the first time. But Cliff Drysdale stunned Laver in a five set, round of 16 appointment, and Ashe subsequently halted Drysdale in the quarterfinals before ousting Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner in a hard fought, four set semifinal.
That set the stage for Ashe to halt the “Flying Dutchman” Tom Okker in an entertaining five set final, with the American winning 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, and serving no fewer than 26 aces in the process. At 25, he played the game entirely on his own terms, in a totally free-wheeling manner, going boldly for winners off both sides, keeping the galleries on the edge of their seats, leaving his fans endlessly apprehensive because they never quite knew what was coming next. Ashe could be exasperatingly unpredictable but he was an electrifying performer, true to his instincts, capable of a brand of spontaneous brilliance few could equal. He was a serve-and-volleyer through and through, possessing a stellar and explosive backhand ground stroke and a first rate backhand volley. Moreover, he had one of the great serves of his era, producing aces almost at will, destroying adversaries with his wide sliced serve in the deuce court.
When Ashe took that 1968 U.S. Open and established himself as one of the most prominent athletes in the world—as well as becoming the first African American man to secure a major title—I was not yet a reporter but rather a 16-year-old fan. Watching him oust Okker that day at Forest Hills was one of the great joys of my youth. The combination of his flair and elegance as a player along with his unshakably cool demeanor made him enormously appealing not only to me but to sports fans in every corner of the globe. The way Ashe presented himself with his ultra-cool exterior and his singularly riveting style of play made him immensely appealing. We followed his every move and match because the implacable Ashe was exemplary in so many ways.
Four years after that seminal moment at Forest Hills, Ashe returned to the U.S. Open final as a far more seasoned competitor in 1972. None of the sparkle was gone from his game, but he had by then taken the Australian Open (in 1970) and at 29 was more sophisticated in his approach to playing the game and even more determined to exploit his potential. He played some of the finest tennis of his career to stop Wimbledon champion Stan Smith and compatriot Cliff Richey to reach the final, and should have beaten the mercurial Ilie Nastase of Romania. Ashe led two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth set before falling in five sets. It was a heartbreaking loss for the American, who fully believed he was going to win that match and capture a second U.S. Open crown.
It was also a profoundly distressing moment for me as I started my transition from fan to reporter. At 20, I was assisting Bud Collins during his CBS telecast of the match alongside another heroic figure in my life, the incomparable Jack Kramer. I was serving as a statistician for Collins as he anchored the telecast, and was then expected to join him in the press room immediately afterwards to help Bud with any special facts he might need for his Boston Globe column. But I was not yet able to meet the professional standards because the Ashe loss crushed me. I had watched Ashe sit in a chair by the side of the court after the jarring defeat against Nastase, and had seen him fighting in vain to hold back the tears as he dealt with the reality of a hard setback that came—at least in part—because his opponent behaved abysmally, distracting the dignified American. Then I watched Ashe take the long, lonely walk back to the clubhouse, moving briskly along the walkway past the fans, seeking the sanctity and refuge of the locker room as quickly as possible.
I found myself absolutely disconsolate, and walked back to a corner of the clubhouse, releasing some tears of my own. I tried to compose myself, returning twenty minutes later to the press room. Collins asked where I had been. I explained how distraught I was, and Bud fully understood. I was grateful that he did not give me a stern lecture about growing up and being responsible. After Bud had finished his piece, we rode back into New York together, and Collins dropped me off on the corner of 86th street and Madison Avenue, two blocks from where I lived at the time. As soon as Collins drove off to the west side where he was staying, I burst into tears again while I walked home, this time uncontrollably. I knew that Ashe had been agonizingly close to upending the two best players in the world to take home a second U.S. Open title, and it was more than I could handle.
About four months later, I met Ashe for the first time, interviewing him at the Royal Albert Hall during a 1973 WCT event in London. I asked him about the Nastase match, and assumed he would tell me that he had recovered from it swiftly. But his answer demonstrated that he cared much more about his craft than many longtime tennis observers realized. He admitted that the sting of that Nastase defeat had not diminished. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that match,” he told me. “If I could have held my serve two more times in that fourth set, I would have won a second U.S. Open title. It still bothers me a lot.”
Three years passed, and Ashe gave himself the chance to permanently erase the memory of the Nastase setback in New York. Less than a week before turning 32, he struck down the game’s dominant force in the final of Wimbledon, taking apart Jimmy Connors with the most cerebral display of his illustrious career, eclipsing the 22-year-old No. 1 seed 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. It remains one of my biggest regrets that I was not at Wimbledon that year. I had started a job with World Tennis Magazine ten months earlier and stayed in our New York offices and followed Wimbledon from afar. It was one of only three Wimbledon editions that I have not attended since my first visit in 1965. That weekend, I joined two of my cousins up in Ithaca, New York for a family weekend. The morning of the historic Ashe-Connors duel, we all went to play tennis and returned around lunchtime, knowing the match was probably over. I told my cousins we should wait until the match was shown on delayed tape by NBC a few hours later to find out the result, but I broke my pledge, turning on the radio in the kitchen. A local broadcaster reviewed the day’s news headlines, and then said suddenly in a somber voice conveying no feeling, “And in tennis, Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win Wimbledon, defeating Jimmy Connors….”
I stood there in my cousin Todd’s kitchen, stunned and exhilarated, letting the magnitude of the Ashe triumph sink in. “We have to celebrate this,” I said. Todd and Dan were in accord. Todd promptly pulled out his best bottle of ginger ale, and we all raised our glasses to the new Wimbledon champion. I was not willing to stop there. In my most celebratory mood, I insisted on having a second glass.
When I watched it all unfold later on television, I was staggered in many ways by how disciplined and creative Ashe was in striking down the mighty Connors. Connors was the defending champion, and the overwhelming favorite. The southpaw Connors had routed the big serving left-hander Roscoe Tanner in the semifinals, and that only added to his aura of invincibility. But Ashe and his “brain trust”—including Donald Dell and some fellow players—had devised a brilliant game plan together the night before his contest with Connors. He then went out and confounded Connors with a wide array of spins and speeds, substituting his normally potent ground strokes for subtle changes of pace. He swung his slice were with striking precision wide in the deuce court to pull Connors off the court to his two-handed backhand side. He chipped cunningly off the backhand, lobbed with impeccable touch, and gave Connors no pace. His strategic acumen was nothing short of stupendous. All in all, his 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 triumph was breathtaking.
When I interviewed Ashe about that career defining victory over Connors, he said, “I had the strangest feeling that I just could not lose that day. I remember looking up at the clock in the Centre Court for the first time and it was only forty one minutes after 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.’”
But a player who had been essentially unconscious for two sets suddenly became almost too aware of what he was doing. As Ashe explained to 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 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 the clock, I would have beaten Connors in straight sets.”
In one of the last interviews I did with Ashe, he 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 told me once 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 it because it was such an historic moment, such a great moment for a man everyone loved. 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.”
And yet, twenty years after Ashe’s death, I also remember the laughter many of us shared with him. I vividly recall that joyous smile that would spread across his face so naturally. In many ways, he was a deeply serious man who did not want to waste time or squander opportunities. But he had an excellent sense of humor. I remember running into Arthur at the Orange Bowl World Junior Championships down in Miami Beach late in 1977. We were talking about one of his protégé’s, Yannick Noah, who had just lost a match he should have won in the final against Ivan Lendl. Ashe was empathizing with Noah. “He just has to learn how to close out matches. It isn’t easy. He got a little flustered. Yannick will figure it out.” At that moment, a tennis enthusiast dropped by to say hello to Ashe. Turning to introduce me to his friend, Ashe broke into an endearing grin and said, “This is Steve Flink. He’s the chief egghead of tennis in this country.”
I remember a bitterly cold winter afternoon in Philadelphia during the U.S. Pro Indoor of 1974. Ashe would lose the final to Laver the next day, but as he arrived for his semifinal at The Spectrum, I was walking into the building with Bud Collins. Ashe noticed that Collins was wearing socks, which was not a frequent occurrence with Bud. Ashe turned to Collins and said, “Bud, what’s happening here? Why are you wearing socks?” Collins did not skip a beat, replying, “Arthur, I’ve told you before: sock season starts on October 15 and lasts until February or March.” Ashe shook his head, amused by Collins, enjoying the light moment a short while before going out on court to defeat Tony Roche in the penultimate round.Another Ashe moment that brought a smile to my face was at Wimbledon in 1979, his last appearance as a player at the shrine of the sport. I was walking through the locker room on the first day of the tournament with John Barrett of the BBC, and ran into Arthur as he was getting ready for his match. “Hey Steve,” he said. “I met your father recently.” I asked him where they had crossed paths, and he responded, “I can’t tell you exactly where it was, but I know it was your father.” We both laughed heartily.
My two most enduring memories of Arthur Ashe were of rides we shared both to and from New York City. The first was when he gave me a lift home one night from The Masters at Madison Square Garden in late 1986 to Westchester County where we both lived at the time, and the second was a chance meeting on a train ride from Westchester into New York a year or two later. We covered a wide range of topics on those trips, from politics to sports to just about everything that was going on in the world. During those visits, there was never a dull minute. Ashe was an outstanding conversationalist, a deep thinker with a multi-faceted mind, as interested in what you had to say as anything he wanted to convey.
Tomorrow evening in New York, I will be attending a 20th Anniversary Commemoration honoring Ashe, hosted by his lovely widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe. I look forward to the occasion. He was one of the few great players who transcended tennis. He was fundamentally larger than the game he played, taller in stature than just about anyone else in the sporting universe, quick-witted, erudite, ever thoughtful. In many ways, he resembled the current occupant of the White House, President Barack Obama. Like Obama, Ashe conducted himself with an almost professorial elegance and an unwavering dignity and grace. He never spoke without being deliberate, seldom acted rashly, always carried himself with class and character. To say the least, I miss Arthur Ashe very much.