Ashe praised by many colleagues as a dignified leader Former tennis star pioneered the integration of professional tennis.

April 09, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Dignity. Class.

To people who know Arthur Ashe, dignity and class are two of the first words that come to mind when his name is mentioned.

As the first successful black male tennis player, Mr. Ashe was a pioneer in his sport. And he has been an active, reasonable, soft-spoken believer in worthy causes such as education for minorities, ridding South Africa of apartheid and providing tennis opportunities for inner-city children.

Back in the '60s, it wasn't easy breaking into the all-white sport of men's tennis. But Mr. Ashe won three of the four tennis Grand Slams: the U.S. and Australian opens and Wimbledon. He was the first black player on the American Davis Cup team.

Following two heart operations, Mr. Ashe, 48, continued his involvement in tennis. He was the U.S. Davis Cup captain from through '85 and guided the John McEnroe-led teams to two titles. Mr. Ashe still serves on the Davis Cup committee.

He also is a tennis commentator for ABC-TV and HBO and works with youth through the National Junior Tennis League and the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Manayunk.

Yesterday, Mr. Ashe made the shocking announcement that he has AIDS. At a press conference in New York, Mr. Ashe said he believes he was infected with a blood transfusion following his second heart operation, in 1983.

As the latest example of bad things happening to good people, Mr. Ashe handled his appearance with dignity and class. He has known he has been infected for four years, since he temporarily lost the use of his right hand and tests disclosed the AIDS virus. He was forced to go public with the news because last week someone tipped off USA Today and a reporter for the newspaper approached Mr. Ashe about his health. The newspaper had not yet reported that Mr. Ashe had AIDS when he made yesterday's announcement.

Mr. Ashe lost his composure only once during the press conference -- when he mentioned his 5-year-old daughter, Camera. Mr. Ashe paused, twice rubbed his forehead with his left hand, then asked his wife, Jeanne, to read the part of his statement about how they will talk to Camera about handling the news. Mr. Ashe then finished his statement and answered questions. Mr. Ashe said his wife and daughter both are HIV-negative.

While the news about his having AIDS stunned the public, several tennis insiders have known about Mr. Ashe's condition.

"Arthur told me a couple years ago," said Cliff Drysdale, a former pro who now is a tennis commentator for ESPN.

"The inner world of tennis has known for several years," said Marilyn Fernberger, former co-chairman of the U.S. Pro Indoor tournament. "But no one said a word because we all respected Arthur so much."

Mr. Drysdale, a native South African, and Mr. Ashe have been friends since the '60s. When the Fernbergers held a national Arthur Ashe Day in Philadelphia in 1965 to raise funds for the American Tennis Association (a black organization), Mr. Drysdale attended, along with the U.S. and Australian Davis Cup teams.

"Arthur is one of the unluckiest fine people in the world," Mr. Drys dale said last night from Amelia Island, Fla., where he is anchoring ESPN's telecasts of the Bausch and Lomb women's tournament. "I have had political disagreements with him in the early days, because I was the first president of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and we didn't always agree on how fast we should go to move the game in the right direction.

"But I've never heard anyone take a swipe at him for his personality or his lifestyle. He's one of the most respected people in the history of the sport."

Mr. Drysdale said Mr. Ashe previously considered revealing he has AIDS, but he worried that it would "change his lifestyle dramatically. But I don't think it will. People understand the problem more now and aren't going to blame him."

One of the many people Mr. Ashe has influenced in tennis is former touring player Rodney Harmon, who lost to Jimmy Connors in the 1982 U.S. Open quarterfinals. Mr. Harmon, later a pro at the Upper Main Line YMCA in Berwyn and the Arrowhead Racquet Club in Medford, N.J., grew up in Mr. Ashe's hometown of Richmond, Va., and played on public courts in the same area.

Arthur Ashe Sr. was a park patrolman whose beat was the park where the tennis courts were located.

"Arthur (Jr.) has helped me since I was a youngster," Mr. Harmon said from Miami, where he is based as a player development coach for the U.S. Tennis Association. "He's one of the most revered people in the city (Richmond). He's one of the finest people I know. He speaks his mind and cares about people."

Mr. Harmon described listening to Mr. Ashe's press conference on the radio as "really emotional. I had just talked to him (on Monday). He's suffered through so much with his heart, and to have something like this happen to him is devastating for someone who has always been nice to other people."

As people heard about Mr. Ashe's condition yesterday, they reacted from the heart.

Said Chris Evert: "Arthur is one of the great human beings ever to play tennis. Arthur has always been a gentleman and a great ambassador for tennis. I'm praying for him."

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