His Light Shines Forever

Tennis! I thought. Why in the world is this guy asking me to write about tennis? I’ve never played the sport. Never even seen a whole match. Certainly don’t know the finer points of the game. You hold the skinny end of the racquet. Right? Hit the ball over the net. Try to keep it inside the lines. OK. I get it. But wait. Really. I don’t have a clue.
There I was, though, one bright summer morning back in 1970, a newly minted college graduate, first day on the job, standing before Jennings Culley, sports editor of the Richmond News Leader, getting my initial assignment.
Go over to Byrd Park, he directed me, and cover the city tournament. I gulped. I knew the learning curve would be El Capitan-steep. With a smile and a cheerful “Yes, Sir,” though, I headed off to the courts on the Boulevard to begin my first adventure as a credentialed sports writer. I was wary, that’s for sure, but I was determined to get the story right.
At the University of Richmond, I’d majored in journalism. My mentor was the venerable Joseph E. Nettles, the department head and a former Associated Press and Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter. His lessons served me well, especially when I was confronted with a project for which I had no frame of reference and very little background.
Facts, facts, and more facts, he told his charges. Paint a picture in words so the reader can see what you see. Those instructions seemed straightforward when he’d given them (which he did, in so many words, quite often). Not so much when I was forced to step well outside my comfort zone.
Time passed, and I somehow managed. Asked plenty of questions. Wrote about the blazing sun and cerulean sky to mask my lack of tennis knowledge. Relied on the good nature, guidance, and patience of the local tennis community. Even learned a bit about the sport along the way.
Fast forward to the next January. That’s when I drew the assignment to cover the Fidelity Invitational Tournament, an indoor event at the Richmond Arena that brought the top professionals to town. Among the stars of the day were Ken Rosewall, Clark Graebner, John Newcomb, Ilie Nastase, and Dennis Ralston. All would be there. So, too, would Arthur Ashe.
A native Richmonder, Ashe was already a celebrity. He’d won two Grand Slam singles titles: the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. His story was well known: raised by his father (Arthur Ashe Sr.), learned the game on the public courts of Northside, denied many competitive opportunities because of his race, mentored by the legendary Dr. Walter Johnson in Lynchburg, UCLA graduate.   I’d long ago recognized that athletes are human just like the rest of us and you idolize them at your own risk, but it seemed that Ashe was cut from a different cloth. He was an elite tennis player – true – but he was also well spoken, erudite, humble, and unpretentious. I looked forward to meeting him. When I did, he was exactly as I imagined.
My introduction, in the musty, cramped Arena locker room, occurred after he defeated Ralston 6-0, 6-4 in the semifinal.
In response to my questions, he said, “It…could have gone either way. I didn’t let up in the second set. I just started missing shots. He could just as easily have beaten me 6-0 in the first set. It was just a matter of getting the breaks on a few 30-30 situations.”
I was taken by his equanimity and generous words toward his vanquished opponent. That was simply his modus operandi.
A year later, the tournament moved to the newly opened Richmond Coliseum. There, I ran into Ashe once again. As in 1971, he was genial, gracious, and accommodating. This was an era when media access was relatively easy. There were no post-match press conferences. Writers could mingle with the players, chat with them in the locker room, and share moments with them as they hung out between matches.
I recall sitting on a bench next to Ashe, notepad in hand, in the players’ area following his early-round 6-4, 6-4 victory over a tour rookie named Terry Addison. He mentioned (again, in response to my queries) that while he won fairly handily, he wasn’t satisfied.
“I was rusty,” he offered. “My timing was off. You can expect that when you haven’t played in a couple of months.”
Some folks say that, and they’re making excuses. He wasn’t, of course. He was simply analyzing his performance in an effort to improve the next time out. Seems like he was always trying to improve, in tennis and in life.
“If there was anything I was pleased with,” he continued, “it was that I didn’t double-fault. I wasn’t serving cautiously. That doesn’t do any good at this stage of the game. You just have to go out there and hit the ball. Otherwise, you’ll never build your confidence.”
While sports competition is about controlling your opponent, I read his comments, then and now, to mean that he was striving to control himself and that defeating opponents would take care of itself.
I also recall asking him about the thick hardback that was in his bag. Seems he was engrossed in Papillion, a recently-released novel that would quickly become a best-seller. For Ashe, you see, it was always about more than tennis. Even before his athletic career ended prematurely because of health issues, he’d developed a reputation as a gifted writer, thinker, humanitarian, advocate for the underserved, and spokesman for societal issues near to his heart.
Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of Arthur Ashe’s death at age 49. Over the years, much has been written about his life, his accomplishments, and his profound and lasting influence. He was – no, is – a cultural icon, guiding light, and superstar. Pretty good tennis player, too.
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