The different ages of Ashe

Robert Philip remembers one of tennis' greatest champions, the late Arthur Ashe, who would have been 65 tomorrow.
The greatest achievement of Arthur Ashe's career came in 1975 when he beat Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon.
The greatest achievement of Arthur Ashe's career came in 1975 when he beat Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon.

After arguably the greatest ever Wimbledon final, let us pause awhile to remember one of tennis' greatest champions, the late Arthur Ashe, who would have been 65 tomorrow. Stockholm, Dec 1975: Arthur Ashe picked at his breakfast and stared out the window of the Grand Hotel with morose detachment. The snow fell in flakes the size of cotton wool balls, transforming the city into a winter wonderland. But there was no sense of wonder in his eyes, only remorse and bitter anger. It was the morning after a shameful night before.

Ten hours earlier, Ashe, Wimbledon champion of five months' standing, America's Sportsman of the Year, and the most kindly, courteous and self-controlled of professional athletes, had been disqualified in the undistinguished company of Ilie Nastase. It is highly probable Nastase was the only man on earth who could have provoked Ashe beyond reason. When he was 12 and from a poor neighbourhood, he had been turned away from an all-white tennis club in his home town of Richmond, Virginia; thereafter, no matter the provocation, he had learned to treat even the most vile racial taunts with dignity.

Ashe played tennis with the same air of serenity, even on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, where his intense powers of concentration had assumed a near-mystical quality against Jimmy Connors on men's final day that very July. But now, leading Nastase 1-6, 7-5, 4-1 in the opening round-robin match of the 1975 Masters Championship, Ashe had finally cracked in the face of the Romanian's characteristically outrageous behaviour.

Incensed by his opponent's disregard for the rules, his invective, his tantrums, Ashe had incurred the wrath of the usually respectful Swedish audience by gathering up his rackets and walking off, earning instant disqualification. Nastase was also banished. "Hey, Negroni." Ashe looked up from the breakfast table to find his evil tormentor of the night before looming over him. "Here, for you," said Nastase, pitbull terrier turned limpid-eyed spaniel, proffering a bunch of flowers and planting a kiss on both cheeks by way of apology.

A stoney-faced Arthur Ashe, who had only seconds before silently vowed not to speak to the wild Transylvanian gipsy again, watched this performance through narrowed eyes then burst into laughter. He never could stay angry with anyone - even Nastase - for long. Wimbledon, July 1969: It was to last little more than 20 minutes, but in that fleeting period, Arthur Ashe produced what many still believe to be the most dazzlingly brilliant set of tennis ever witnessed on the Centre Court. His opponent, Rod Laver, was then at the very peak of his powers, the reigning champion of Australia and France, and on his way to completing the Grand Slam.

But for the first eight games of their eagerly-awaited men's singles semi-final, the Australian was cast in the role - albeit unwillingly - of the sorcerer's assistant. This was not the Arthur Ashe who, on the same court six years later, would forever shatter Jimmy Connors's aura of seeming invincibility with gentle returns, floating lobs and cunning angles; this was the real Arthur Ashe, unrehearsed, unrestrained and, when the mood was upon him, virtually unplayable. A swashbuckling pirate with a lust for danger.

Ashe's flamboyant shots, notably his serve and top-spin backhand, whistled past Laver's despairing racket like tracer-bullets. The Australian, Wimbledon champion in 1961, 1962, 1968 and unarguably one of the three best players of all time, was rendered impotent. ""All I could do," he was later to say in disbelief, "was try to ride out the storm. I got embarrassed every time I picked up the balls and prepared to serve knowing he would hit another winner back at me."

Of course, no human could have sustained such divine inspiration. The lightning gradually fizzled out, the storm abated, and Laver eventually won 2-6, 6-2, 9-7, 6-0 before going on to beat John Newcombe in the final. But to this day, Laver is in no doubt that for 20 minutes or so, one July afternoon four decades ago, he found himself in the presence of a sporting god. "No player in tennis history, and I mean no one, has ever played better than Arthur did that day on the Centre Court."

New York, Dec 25, 1992: To Camera Ashe, aged six, it was as much a part of her Christmas as the Santa outside Bloomingdale's in nearby Lexington Avenue. On Christmas Day, just as she had done the previous year before sitting down to lunch, she carefully set aside a pile of old toys and a randomly chosen heap - slightly smaller in size - of still-to-be-opened gift-wrapped parcels from underneath the tree.

Then, accompanied by her father, Camera delivered her precious package in person to a children's hospital deep in Harlem. "She always gets far too many presents. This way we hope it helps teach her the value of things," explained Ashe Snr, "She has to know that not all children are as lucky as she is ." In his last interview before he died, Arthur Ashe explained why he no longer felt any sense of rage that he had been infected by AIDS after receiving a blood transfusion during heart surgery. "Things don't always have rational answers. There comes a time, after the long good fight, when you have to put Dylan Thomas on the shelf and go to sleep."

Published: July 8, 2008 04:00 AM


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