Dexter Rogers

Dexter Rogers

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Arthur Ashe: A Tribute to an American hero

When Arthur Ashe won the US Open in 1968 he ushered in the “Open Era” of tennis which allowed both professional and amateur players to compete against each other. Ashe’s historic victory planted the seeds of change in tennis that have clearly manifested over the past four decades.

When Ashe beat Tom Okker in the final he received the winners’ trophy and $20.00 per a day in per diem while the runner-up received the winners’ share of $14,000 because Ashe was an amateur. The money was simply part of the sacrifice he made so the future generation of players would benefit today.

I was fortunate enough to have met Ashe in 1992 before a lecture he gave at Indiana University. In our brief conversation I expressed my love for tennis and asked how I could get better. He softly stated, “You have to practice.” Now, sixteen years later I’ll be attending this years’ US Open as a credentialed journalist writing about the man who kicked off the Open era in tennis.

When I met Ashe I knew he was a pretty good tennis player but hadn’t fully known of his accomplishments off the court.

Now I certainly do.

Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia July 10, 1943. As a youngster he was introduced to the game by his father Arthur Ashe Sr. Later Ashe’s skills would be honed by his coach Robert Walter Johnson. He was a standout tennis player at Sumner High School and was featured in Sports Illustrated.

Ashe entered UCLA in 1963 and in 1965 won the NCAA singles title in 1965. Besides his US Open victory in 1968 Ashe won the United States Amateur Championships and led the U.S Davis Cup team to victory. He’s the only player to have won both the Amateur and Open National Championships in the same year.

When Ashe ushered in the Open Era of tennis the societal conditions were horrific and racism was ripping the America apart. The country was was engaging in an unpopular war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King was assinated in April and Presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy was slain in June. As a result race riots took place all over the country during the summer.

Ashe himself once suggested the biggest ordeal in his life wasn’t a tough opponent or AIDS-it was dealing with the complexities of racism. Ashe stated, “Living with AIDS is not the greatest burden I've had in my life. Being black is."

Ashe also stated, "AIDS killed my body, but racism is harder to bear. It kills the soul."

Ashe consistently displayed courage in battling opponents on the court, racism in America, aparthied abroad, and AIDS in his last days.
Without a doubt Ashe was a courageous man.

As a reminder of his marked courage The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage award is given annually to individuals who display courage in the face of adversity. The 2008 recipients were former Olymypic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos for the stand they took at the 1968 Olympics. With their fists raised to the sky and their heads bowed Smith and Carlos protested against racsim on the world’s largest athletic stage. Smith and Carlos’s demonstration was a silent gesture heard around the world.

It’s often difficult to visualize what’s possible without a visible prototype. Ashe along with the great female tennis great Althea Gibson made it possible for current African American players like James Blake, Donald Young, Venus the Williams sisters to excel. I only hope Ashe’s and Gibson’s foundation they set yesterday is not only embraced but appreciated today.

I think the name “US Open” is a fitting for this tournament. “United” means togetherness and “states” is a place of being. “Open” implies inclusion and freedom to engage.

Who better exemplified the latter more than Arthur Ashe?

This years 40 year celebration of Open tennis will be conducted at the stadium that bears the man’s name who started it all. The beautiful thing about sport is it brings people together. We temporaily relax our preconcieved notions and root for the team and or athlete. Wouldn’t it be great to bottle that temporary cohesion and give doses to everyone with the promise of making the temporary permanent?

If Ashe were alive today I think he’d want that.

Unlike most athletes today Ashe used his platform to plant the seeds of growth in society and sport. Ashe was a father, husband, mentor, activist, humanitarian, coach, scholar, and author who served his country who happened to play great tennis.

Inclusion is what Arthur Ashe fought for on and off the court: it’s wonderful to see those seeds he planted forty years ago are being recognized as they continue to bloom today.

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