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COMMENTARY : Ashe Remains a Rare Athlete Who Connects With the Real World

September 06, 1992|JOHN JEANSONNE | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — Check the rest of the newspaper, too. It is not only the two-week U.S. Open tennis championships, that began Monday and runs through Sept. 13, that make Arthur Ashe relevant now. There are all sorts of meaningful links between Ashe and What's Going On: South Africa, the presidential campaign, racial tension, the public's right to know, AIDS.

Ashe always is at the Open. He has been at the Open as player-tennis official-writer-commentator ever since it became the "Open" in 1968, integrating professionals and amateurs--and he won it. But this time even Ashe's pertinence to current events singles him out again as the rare athlete who actually connects to the real world.

Last Sunday, on the eve of the next best thing to Wimbledon, the sport's top players and officials have given themselves to Ashe's daylong AIDS Tennis Challenge at the National Tennis Center, the first exhibition event in a 15-month campaign to raise $5 million for AIDS research and care.

It is four years since Ashe learned he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, and not quite five months since he felt his privacy was invaded by USA Today's pursuit of his AIDS story. Still, as friends predicted when he confirmed on April 8 that he indeed has the deadly virus, Ashe turned an injustice into yet another selfless project.

"There is a famous black theologian, Howard Thurman," Ashe said. "He implored people, 'How do you want to order your days?' He said you should select subjects and people worthy of your time, and that can't be everything; you have to narrow it to three or four things. So everything I've been involved with is because of some personal, individual involvement. I can tell you how I got involved with this, this, this and that. There's always been some transforming event."

In 1948, Ashe's father was named caretaker of the second-largest tennis club in Richmond, Va., a job that came with a house located on the club's grounds and that is how a 5-year-old Ashe met tennis, an otherwise white man's sport.

In 1951, a black Lynchburg, Va., physician named Walter Johnson just had helped Althea Gibson enter the National Championships at Forest Hills--what was to become the Open

--and was angry to learn that the U.S. Tennis Assn. would not allow blacks into the national interscholastic tournaments. Johnson talked the USTA into allowing him to stage an all-black qualifying tournament, with its two finalists proceeding to the nationals, and in 1961, Ashe, one of many young blacks tutored by Johnson, won that tournament.

In 1968 Ashe became the first black male to win at Forest Hills, though runner-up Tom Okker took home the $14,000 in prize money because Ashe still was an amateur. In 1970, Ashe added the Australian Open title but was denied a visa to compete in South Africa on racial grounds, convincing Ashe to appear before the United Nations to urge a tennis boycott of the apartheid nation.

Over the years, all these "transforming events" were seized upon by Ashe with an obviously uncharacteristic zeal. "Athletes," Ashe said, "are focused on the here and now. Most of our premier athletes are between 18 and 34 years old. In that range, you're at your best in a physical and emotional sense. You think you're immortal; we all think of ourselves as invincible, indestructible."

Athletes are busy playing their games, and so they do not readily connect with the bigger picture out there. When Ashe won the first Open in '68, he felt "out of sorts" to find his picture on the cover of Life magazine, yet he jumped at the chance to be the first athlete ever invited to appear on the news show "Face the Nation."

"I'm a political nut," Ashe said. He points to "one of the joys of being a professional tennis player for 10 years" being the ability to sit down with shakers and movers and discuss everything from apartheid to Anwar Sadat to Muhammad Ali's 1967 decision to refuse induction. He frets that there is a "similarity of racial tension between 1968 and now; the riots in L.A. and Detroit and Chicago then and the recent riots in L.A." He calls the Republicans "neanderthals" in their reaction to the AIDS crisis.

"I really want to be president," he said with a straight face. "I think I can be a good president."

His understanding of the athletic necessity, to concentrate so intensely upon the matter at hand, is tempered with an obvious impatience about athletes' lack of awareness. When he saw Vince Coleman quoted as saying, "I don't know nothing about no Jackie Robinson," Ashe called it "one of the saddest things I've ever read."

Ashe once asked Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the three-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field, if she ever had heard of Alice Coachman, the high jumper who in 1948 became the first black woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal. Joyner had not.

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