It was so long ago it seems like a different world. Forty-four years to be exact when the American Arthur Ashe faced off against the Australian John Newcombe in the Quarter Finals of the 1970 U.S. Open Tennis Championships in Forest Hills New York. My friend Michael’s father was in the publishing business and somehow he had not only gotten us tickets to the event, he had managed to secure us Press Passes which included access to the locker rooms and all the club member areas.
Tennis was different then. We wore jackets and ties to the event. The rest of the crowd was equally dressed up. People who now go to tennis tournaments dress like they are pretending to be players, in tennis outfits and sports gear. The players themselves now dress in multicolored fancy outfits often with their own design labels.
Forty Four years ago the sport was a lot less colorful. Players dressed in all white. Tennis was mostly played at private clubs with all white membership. The professional tennis players themselves were white. Then Arthur Ashe came along.
He did not actually look like a professional athlete. He was tall and skinny and wore glasses. He did not have what would be called a dramatic style, but he was persistent and chased after every ball.
John Newcombe was considered the top player that year. He had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Newcombe was ruggedly handsome, very muscular with a wickedly fast serve that could actually knock the racket out of an opposing player’s hand. Everyone assumed that Newcombe would crush Ashe and move on to the semi-finals.
As we watched the first set it appeared that all the predictions were correct. Ashe was unable to return Newcombe’s serve. Michael and I took full advantage of our press passes and went down to the members-only restaurant which was at court level. It had a plexiglass wall that looked out at the court directly behind Ashe. We sat there as Ashe missed serve after serve by Newcombe. The tennis ball would fly by Ashe and then smash into the plexiglass with a bang hard enough so shake the whole window.
Newcombe did indeed crush Ashe in the first set beating him 6 games to 1. However Arthur Ashe showed no emotion. As one of the first African-Americans to go pro in the sport, Ashe had been given strong advice from an early coach on how to behave. The coach warned Ashe that there would be some prejudiced officials who would be looking for excuses to throw Ashe out of a match.
The coach told Arthur never to show anger if he was losing and never to gloat if he was winning. Ashe followed that advice and soon found that it actually gave him an advantage, especially over very emotional opponents. He found that it drove some opponents crazy that they could get no reaction from Arthur no matter what they did.
Instead of getting upset, Ashe must have re-examined the techniques of his game, because somehow in the second set he was like a new man. He was able to return the serves and volleys and began winning games. He still lost the second set, but it had to go to a tie-breaking game and when the second set was done Newcombe had only won 7 games to 6.
By the third set Ashe seemed to have found the weaknesses in Newcombe’s play, and Ashe won the third set 7 games to 5. The score was now Newcombe 2 Sets Ashe 1 Set. It took 3 sets to win a match.
The next set was incredibly exciting. Both players were terrific. They had long volleys, smashing overhead returns and dropping net balls. The set was tied at 6 games each.
There would be a tie-breaker game. If Newcombe won the game he would win the match. If Ashe won, then play would continue into a fifth set. The officials blew a bugle and hoisted a red flag to show the seriousness of the tie-breaker. Looking back it seems silly that adults would do that, but it was really exciting and the crowd loved it.
The tie breaker seemed to go on forever, with Ashe returning almost every shot Newcombe could hit. But in the end, it wasn’t Ashe’s day, and Newcombe won the game, set and match. Arthur Ashe had lost the match, but he had won the crowd, which was on its feet loudly cheering both men.
Michael and I made our way down through the crowd and used our press passes to get into the locker room. It was exactly like what you would expect in a tennis club in those days. It was spacious with oak paneling and thick plush carpet. Sitting on one of the benches was Arthur Ashe himself quietly discussing the finer points of the match with two other men who seemed to be coaches. As so-called “reporters” we had the right to go up and ask him questions, but we did not. Somehow it just seemed wrong to disturb such a sports gentleman and ask him a lot of stupid questions about why he had lost. He may have lost but what was more important was that he had never stopped trying even when he had been crushed 6 games to 1 in the first set. Michael and I slipped out of the locker room and left Arthur Ashe and his coaches to discuss strategies for future matches.
Unfortunately the Arthur Ashe story itself does not have a happy ending. Despite being rail thin and a professional athlete he had congenital heart problems and underwent heart bypass surgery. Even in the 1980’s hospitals were not routinely screening blood for HIV and Ashe was given blood contaminated with the virus during his operation. He contracted HIV and died from AIDS in 1993. Getting a fatal disease that way would have been enough to make anyone bitter, but that was not his stye. He used it as an opportunity to raise AIDS awareness and raise money for research. He continued to be a philanthropist and inspiration right up until his death. He faced this final episode in his life the way he faced his opponents on the court, with a quiet dignity and determination.