Ashe put high standards on writers, too

Bill Tanton

February 09, 1993|By Bill Tanton

Arthur Ashe and I didn't get off to the best start.

In 1967, a year before he won the first U.S. Open tennis championship, we were in Salisbury for the U.S. National Indoor championship, which brought the best players in the world to Maryland's Eastern Shore each February.

Ashe had graduated from UCLA the year before and was doing a stint in the Army. Lt. Ashe was stationed at West Point and each night tournament promoter Bill Riordan had a private plane fly Arthur to Salisbury.

The first time I interviewed Ashe, I asked him a question about the international tennis scene. His answer took me back, to say the least.

"Obviously you don't know anything about tennis," he said. "I think from now on I'll only do interviews with Allison."

He was referring to Allison Danzig of the New York Times, the preeminent tennis writer of the day.

Danzig had covered the sport since Bill Tilden ruled it in the 20s. Tennis, in my experience, meant The Evening Sun tournament at Clifton Park, Mickey Pardew vs. Tim Thaler. Local stuff. Ashe, Stan Smith, Connors, Laver, Emerson -- the crowd at Salisbury -- were of another world.

My question probably was dumb, but I still thought Ashe arrogant to have answered as he did.

What that taught me about Arthur Ashe was that he had high standards for everyone, for himself, of course, and even for those around him -- including an inexperienced tennis writer.

In September of '68 I was at Forest Hills when the Open became truly Open and pros for the first time were allowed to compete. Ashe won. The final came on a Monday afternoon after a Sunday rainout, and after a helicopter had whirred overhead all morning to dry the grass courts.

What I remember about Ashe when he beat Jimmy Connors that day is his cool, his eloquence and -- this may sound funny in describing an athlete -- his elegance.

To this day Ashe is the only black man to have won the U.S., Australian or Wimbledon men's singles championships, but when he won at Forest Hills there was no jubilance, no wild celebrating. Arthur had too much dignity for that. This, we were beginning to see, was a special man.

I saw Ashe several times in the ensuing years, a couple more times at Salisbury, at U.S. Opens. He stayed the same -- reserved, cool -- no matter what the circumstances.

Ten years ago at a Super Bowl in Los Angeles the NFL arranged a press golf outing the day before the game, and, for non-golfers, a day of tennis at Newport Beach. Ashe was brought in to instruct some 20 tennis hackers, of which I was one.

For the first half hour, Arthur walked around, observing, as his students rallied. He said nothing. Then he called us together.

"I've watched all of you," he said, "and. . ."

And what? Was he impressed by my flat serve? Was he about to praise me for a lob that dropped just inside the baseline?

"And," he continued, "you're all lousy tennis players."

He was right. We were lousy. He started instruction with the serve, and the move that starts the serve -- the toss.

"Some of you toss the ball to your left," he said, sounding professorial. "Some of you toss the ball to your right. Some toss it in back of you, so you can shift your weight and really lay into it. Some toss it straight up. Which is the correct toss?"

"Straight up," I answered.

"Wrong!" Arthur said. "They're all terrible tosses. You have to toss the ball out in front of you so you will be moving forward onto the court as you hit it."

Again, high standards -- even for us. This was a no-nonsense guy.

Ashe's last visit here came only three months before his death last Saturday at 49. He spoke to the student body at Loyola College. Pam Shriver, a Loyola board member, had arranged to bring him here. Arthur was introduced by another member of the school's board, Jim McKay.

"We wanted to bring Arthur to Loyola even before it was known that he had AIDS," the college's academic vice president and provost, Dr. Thomas Scheye, said yesterday.

"We felt that he had taken a courageous stance with regard to Proposition 48. He was a strong advocate of academics, but he believed that all students should compete equally. He took a lot of criticism for that from people like Georgetown coach John Thompson.

"Arthur talked for 20 minutes at our convocation and we gave him an honorary doctorate.

"He was bothered by the way colleges exploit black athletes. We had a tremendous turnout of our own student-athletes and Arthur spoke to them about the importance of academics. We can say the same thing to our students from morning to night but when it comes from a great athlete like Arthur it means more.

"We had some students here from St. Frances, a small Catholic school downtown. Arthur met with them."

Scheye asked Ashe how he was able to manage such a schedule despite his sickness.

"I believe in being responsibly busy," Ashe answered.

That's how Arthur lived his life. He never stopped working for racial justice, or against heart disease and AIDS, always with high standards.

It was almost as if he understood that he would be here for only a relatively short time, and there was so much to be done. And so he stayed responsibly busy to the end.

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