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Struggles On and Off the Court : DAYS OF GRACE: A Memoir, By Arthur Ashe with Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 320 pp.)

July 04, 1993|Joel Drucker | Oakland-based writer Drucker is the tennis editor for City Sports and has written for such publications as Women's Sports & Fitness, World Tennis and Tennis Week

There is a haunting, lonely quality to a posthumous autobiography, an angelic remnant of both an individual and a member of a community. That's particularly compelling in the case of Arthur Ashe, who began working on this book with Arnold Rampersad (Langston Hughes' biographer) weeks after he'd publicly announced that he had AIDS; he finished proofreading the final galleys two days before his death this past February at age 49.

What Ashe calls "A Memoir" reveals a man who embodied many delightful and contradictory impulses. He was a world-class tennis player who characterized his on-court style as "adventurous, sometimes even reckless," while never showing his feelings in a highly ego-driven sport. Yet Ashe also displayed a powerful penchant for sensitivity and perspective, as when discussing the series of circumstances that not only kept him in the public eye, but also wore down his body: "If I don't ask 'Why me?' after my victories, I cannot ask 'Why me?' after my setbacks and tragedies."

Right from the title--"Days of Grace"--Ashe's belief in humanity's power amid challenging circumstances shines. Raised in the "iron-clad grip of legal segregation" governing Virginia of the '40s and '50s, Ashe lost his mother at age 6, took up tennis as "my rod and staff," tenaciously broke through a lily-white sport's restrictions and became the first and only male African-American to date to win one of the game's Grand Slam titles when, at 25, he won the U.S. Open in the highly politicized year of 1968.

Yet until late in his career, his tennis resume had a quality of early promise unfulfilled and a mind scattered on broader issues than his tennis, an openness to ideas he sought and damned: "I had always been an avid reader, but the life of a professional athlete is not always conducive to much reflection. Athletes should be smart, but thinking too much can be a handicap on the court or on the field. So, too, with feeling too much." But just when Ashe appeared to be in his twilight, he won Wimbledon, ousting the supposedly invincible Jimmy Connors. Though in this book Ashe pays little heed to that accomplishment ("How creative was winning Wimbledon?"), the truth was that he had played the most innovative match of his career and one of the more influential matches in tennis history.

Yet as Ashe describes life and intellectual urges, it appears as if some divine force was seeking to pull Ashe off the court into the broader arenas he had often pined for. At 36, he suffered his first heart attack, ending his career, beginning his post-tennis life as "a professional patient," and launching his quest for a bigger impact.

How one makes that impact--the topics, the style, the manner and the message--is at the essence of Ashe's quest. Watching TV during the '92 L.A. riots, all he could think was, "That's not us. That's not us." With calm dignity and his abiding belief in humanism, over the last decade of his life Ashe began expanding in ever-widening circles.

When teaching a class on African-Americans and sports, Ashe was disturbed to find there was no suitable text on the subject. The result: his own three-volume history, funded by $300,000 directly out of his pocket. His expertise in this area also brought him into debates about athletes, test scores and college education. At a time when many black sports leaders were protesting the infamous Proposition 48 (which mandated an athlete have a minimum SAT score of 700 in order to retain eligibility) as racist, Ashe argued that setting the standard so low was "ridiculous," and that by so fighting that minimum many were actually underselling the potential of black youth.

A humanist and a champion in a solitary sport, Ashe clung to his belief that individuals--for all the bad that had happened to them--could still take a measure of control of their destiny: "At some point, each individual is responsible for his or her fate. At some point, one cannot blame history. Does the legacy of slavery explain why Mr. Jones eased into class 10 minutes late this morning?"

In 1982 he was asked to join the board of directors of insurance giant Aetna Life & Casualty, providing insights into company policy, management and programs.

As early as 1973 Ashe had made a breakthrough visit to South Africa, grateful that he "could be a rallying point" for struggling South Africans. By the '80s he was actively engaged in the anti-apartheid movement.

Yet through all of this external engagement Ashe maintained an inner dialogue. For all his liberalism, the bulk of his life had been in comfortable tennis environs rather than protest lines, leading him to wonder, "To what extent was I trying to make up, with my anti-apartheid crusade, for relative inaction a decade or more earlier during the civil-rights struggle?"

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