In 1980 Ashe retired after thriving in an era when on-court behavior was starting to get out of control, thanks to men like Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Because of them, his reputation for sportsmanship and gentlemanly composure stood out. That reputation played a large part in his selection as America’s Davis Cup captain. He oversaw a team led by McEnroe, who was earning his Superbrat nickname and would send Ashe into one of the most turbulent moments of his career.
In 1981, in Cincinnati, the Americans were playing against a strong Argentine team when McEnroe — who’d already embarrassed Ashe in other matches — got into a war of words with the great José Luis Clerc and loudly cursed at him for all to hear. Ashe said: “I thought I might punch John. I have never punched anyone in my life, but I was truly on the brink of hitting him.” Yet the consummate sportsman went light on McEnroe, giving him just a stern warning. Some, at the time, felt Ashe had compromised his principles to placate his best player, but there was something deeper going on. The two men were opposites, but Ashe, who’d had it in him since childhood that he had to behave perfectly on the court, also had a sort of envy of McEnroe’s way. Later in life Ashe wrote: “Far from seeing John as an alien, I think I may have known him … as a reflection of an intimate part of myself. This sense of McEnroe as embodying feelings I could only repress, or as a kind of darker angel to my own tightly restrained spirit, may explain why I always hesitated to interfere with his rages even when he was excessive. … At some level … John was expressing my own rage, as I could never express it; and I perhaps was even grateful to him for doing so.” He also once remarked, “I’ve got to admit that for a long time I’ve had this urge to walk out on Centre Court at Wimbledon and for just one match act like McEnroe.” That said, he knew McEnroe would not have been able to act like that if he were black.
“Arthur Ashe: A Life” is among the best books about tennis I’ve ever read — it’s a deep, detailed, thoughtful chronicle of one of the country’s best and most important players. I wanted to hear more, though, about Ashe’s game and what sort of player he was on the court. And the author (whose previous books include “Freedom Riders”) is on thin ice when he suggests that Ashe was more popular among whites than blacks. Among blacks who love tennis, Ashe remains a god to this day.
It’s inspiring to read about Ashe growing up to become a political figure on his own terms, every bit as political as Ali, even as he employed the measured tones of a diplomat rather than the bombastic tones of a revolutionary. In many ways, Ashe, more than Ali, is the spiritual father of Colin Kaepernick, the seminal athlete-activist of today. Kaepernick’s protest — both his kneeling and his public persona over these last two years — has been calm and dignified in a way Ashe would have respected. Ashe is the kind of man we can hope our children grow up to be like — worldly, smart, cool, thoughtful, politically engaged — which is why my parents made sure I got to meet him all those years ago.