The strategy came to light in the most unlikely of ways. It was the night before the 1975 Wimbledon final, and Arthur Ashe, his agent, Donald Dell, and a couple of friends were dining at London’s Playboy Club, Ashe’s favorite restaurant.
They played a little blackjack, ate some steaks and drank some wine. But mostly they brainstormed for ways Ashe might do the impossible and upset Jimmy Connors, the prohibitive favorite, on Centre Court the next day.
A few ideas were tossed around, but nobody really believed that Ashe would completely revamp the style that had taken him that far. That’s why Dell was so shocked the next afternoon when he noticed Ashe, during changeovers, taking little crumpled pieces of paper out of his racket cover and staring at the crib sheets he had made from the previous night’s conversation.
Suddenly, Ashe was giving the ball lots of underspin, pulling Connors off the baseline with forehands down the middle and cutting out his angles for the open court. The usually manic Connors was livid. This wasn’t how Ashe usually played. Where was his blazing first serve and smashing return? And what was with the notes, and the way he would read them during breaks and then close his eyes, as if he were meditating?
“He didn’t just outplay me,” Connors would say years later. “He outthought me.”
Ashe, who died in 1993, never was the fastest runner, the hardest server, the swiftest volleyer. He became the greatest African-American player because he won with his head, using his brain like a weapon as he twice worked his way to No. 1 and won three Grand Slam tournaments - including that ‘75 Wimbledon - before retiring in 1979.
They are naming the new U.S. Open site in Queens after Arthur Ashe, not just because he was a ground-breaking tennis player, though he certainly was that. He was the first black man to win Wimbledon, the first black man to win the U.S. Open, the first black to make the final of the South African Open, the first black to be named to the Davis Cup team, where he was a member for 10 years. But his skin color doesn’t begin to describe Ashe the tennis player.
“He never lost his cool,” said Pete Sampras, the top-ranked player in next week’s Open. “I am proud to say I try to model myself in many ways after a man like Arthur Ashe.”
He had impeccable court manners, never whining about calls, never throwing his racket. He stayed tough, even when the white-bred crowds scorned him, even when he wasn’t allowed to stay with other players during tournaments in the segregated South, even when there was so much pressure from some civil rights leaders to drop his soft-spoken demeanor and adopt an attitude.
“Arthur was a very passionate, very volatile person, but he knew he couldn’t show it on the court because of who he was and what he represented,” said Dell, Ashe’s agent for 23 years. “If he would have exploded, people would have said, ‘See, he’s just another angry black man.’ Instead, he played his game with such grace.”
He was the thinking-man’s athlete, with arms that looked like noodles yet still managed to pack a punch. Even players who grew up half a world away were struck by the way Ashe used strategy the way some players used their muscles.
“The people in Australia didn’t idolize him because he was the first black tennis player but because of the way he played. He played great tennis,” said Aussie Todd Woodbridge.
“For me, what comes to mind with Arthur is the way he won Wimbledon by taking that risk and slicing the ball slowly in the middle of the court. That was a win for the guys who don’t try to blow it away, guys like me. Since I saw Arthur win in ‘75, I’ve tried to play like that, by using my brains.”
Woodbridge, by the way, was 3 years old in 1975.
“What struck me with Arthur Ashe as a tennis player was the way he was always in control. He was never one to get too flustered with anything,” said Richey Reneberg. “He wasn’t the type of person to let his emotions get to him and it brought out the best in him.”
Ashe once said he had to learn early to corral his temper while playing on the segregated courts of Richmond, Va., his hometown, “or the white folks would never have let me hear the end of it.”
By 1962, when he was 18, he was the fifth-ranked junior in the nation, with a full scholarship to UCLA. It was there that Pancho Gonzalez, whom Ashe would later say was his only sports idol, and Pancho Segura helped fine-tune Ashe’s serve-and-volley game. In 1966, the year he graduated with a degree in business administration, Ashe was described by tennis guru Harry Hopman as “the most promising player in the world.”
Years later, when so many others were trying to match his strokes, they never could match his aura.
“Lots of people wanted to be like Arthur Ashe,” said French star Yannick Noah. “When I was young, he gave me my dream. Kids today grow up wanting to be like Tiger (Woods) or Michael Jordan. I wanted to be like Arthur Ashe.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: U.S. OPEN The national championships begin Monday. USA Network provides television coverage at 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.