DAYS OF GRACE – THE STORY OF A QUIET MAN

24 Jun

Good Morning.

Let me tell you a story.

This is a hastily written story and is one that I have longed to tell properly for many years but circumstances dictate that it should be made public today in a perhaps rushed and imperfect form rather than at a later date when I might be able to make it longer and more detailed with many additional inserts included in the main theme.

On 8th August 1908, in Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland, a man by the name of Maurice Walsh was married to Caroline Begg who was always known by her nickname “Toshon”. Maurice was an Irishman, having been borne in County Kerry, and was fond of writing the odd story. He was something akin to an early 20th century blogger.

While in Dufftown he sent away a few of his stories for publication but he did not achieve any great success.

Following the establishment of the Irish Republic in 1922, Maurice decided to return to his homeland and commenced working for the excise division of the new Irish Government. His wife and family joined him in Ireland in 1923 when Maurice felt that it was safe for them to come to Dublin and there they lived a happy life together until Maurice died in 1964.

However during that time, Maurice wrote many more stories and some of them were published. His writing was widely recognised and his readership grew and grew to the extent that at the time of his death he had achieved a reasonable degree of fame in Ireland and his funeral was attended by the likes of President De Valera.

Maurice Walsh exemplifies how doing a bit of writing on the side so to speak can change a life as he never foresaw that his hobby of writing stories would eventually become his main claim to fame.

One of his most famous stories was written in 1933 and was called The Green Rushes.

“Never heard of it” I hear you say although there may well be a few aficionados who may well recognise the title of the story and know of its claim to fame.

Well, The Green Rushes was published, among other places, in an American bi monthly Magazine called The Saturday Evening Post which can trace its roots all the way back to Benjamin Franklin and his publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette which first came off the presses in 1728.

The story was a great success and some 20 years later became a worldwide phenomenon when it was immortalised in film. The screenplay was adapted and written by a New Yorker called Frank S Nugent ( more of whom on another day perhaps ) who decided to change the title from The Green Rushes to ……….. The Quiet Man.

Who knows what the inspiration was behind the change of name. Perhaps it was merely a reference to Sean Thornton’s character in the film or perhaps it was a reference to an ancient Chinese proverb which says “Beware the wrath of the quiet man”.

I have always been intrigued by the image and the mystery of the quiet man and in literature “quiet” men have often been the unlikely or misunderstood heroes in books and plays.

Such men (and woman) often face adversity and prejudice, hardship and betrayal with a quiet grace and devastating dignity which is only truly recognised far too late in the tale. They often “turn the other cheek” when lesser individuals resort to retaliation, violence and a reactionary anger.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote “Beware of the man who does not return your blow: he neither forgives you nor allows you to forgive yourself.” While John C Calhoun said “Beware of the wrath of the patient adversary”

This is the story of a Quiet Man and a patient adversary who in many ways never returned a blow nor allowed many adversaries to forgive themselves for what they could not see at the time.

For me, he stands head and shoulders above many of the more iconic sporting heroes of our time and as the years pass more and more people have come to know and respect his famous yet untold and unknown story.

As a kid his friends called him “Skinny” or “Bones” simply because he was no more than a tall skinny kid. He wasn’t just ordinary skinny like other skinny kids of his age; he was noticeably skinny to the extent that his physique was instantly noticeable in comparison to others. Accordingly he became “Skinny” by name and by reputation.

Not only that, he was a kid that did not enjoy the best of health. He was sickly and poorly and because of this his father would forbid him to play in contact sports where he might be injured.

His mother had died when he was aged 7 and so our boy and his younger brother were raised by their father who was a strict disciplinarian and who drilled into his sons that there was a certain way to behave and a certain way to conduct yourself at all times.

It was a lesson that would never be forgotten although later it would be privately questioned, repeatedly pondered over, but never departed from.

One day the skinny boy was playing in a park in his native town of Richmond Virginia with some friends. Richmond was a town of segregation where black and white were not allowed to mix and accordingly there were black parks and white parks.

On this day, Skinny and his pals were playing in a certain area when they were told to move on by some white kids as they were just not allowed to play where they were. Some of Skinny’s friends protested: Some showed a degree of dissent: However, Skinny just turned on his heel and left quietly ………. And never ever forgot that he had been thrown out of the park because of the colour of his skin.

Because of his ill health and bean pole stature, his father forbade him to play American Football, or to box or even play basketball. Baseball was permitted, as was athletics, but skinny’s destiny lay in another direction altogether – a direction which would take him into the very heart and soul of elite white society in America and where he would make a mark on that society and upon his sport which has no equal and stands no comparison to any other sports star before or since.

Skinny’s real name was Arthur Ashe Junior.

To many people in the UK of a certain age, the very name Arthur Ashe conjures up a unique yet uninformed image.

Yes he was a black tennis player. He was one of the very few male tennis player in the world who wore spectacles – the only female, as far as i am aware, being Billie Jean King.

And he won Wimbledon in 1975 against the red hot favourite Jimmy Connors.

However, go beyond that very simple image of Arthur Ashe – dig a little deeper – and you will find a remarkable, tragic, astonishing and wonderful story.

Since his death at the dreadfully early age of 49 on February 6th 1993 the legend of what Arthur Ashe achieved outwith playing tennis has simply grown and grown.

Today, the name of the skinny kid who was kicked off the all-white tennis courts of Richmond Virginia is emblazoned all over the National Tennis Centre at Flushing Meadows New York with every single tennis professional in the world wanting to feel the pressure and honour of playing on “Arthur Ashe”.

Not only that, but for reasons that will become apparent all sorts of organisations from broadcasters, to charities, to newspapers, to sports bodies in a whole host of different sports hand out annual awards which bear the name “ The Arthur Ashe award for …….” whatever.

In terms of playing tennis it is worth briefly repeating some of the Arthur Ashe story.

He was unbelievably tall and skinny but started to play the gentleman’s game of tennis from the age of seven and showed a prodigious talent for the game. In Richmond he was coached by the best black coach of the time, Robert Johnson, who had also coached the first black woman to win Wimbledon, Althea Gibson.

From 1953 to 1960, Johnson coached young Arthur and reinforced the lessons that had been taught to “skinny” Arthur by his father Arthur Ashe senior, only this time the coaching was tennis specific and emphasized what was known as racial socialisation.

That meant that Arthur was taught always to be a gentleman, to return every ball that was within two inches of a line and if there was ever any doubt about whether a ball was in or out he had to cede the point to his opponent out of courtesy. Further, it was drummed into him that he was never to question the decision of an umpire and never to show any signs of emotion, distress, anger, frustration, annoyance or unsportsmanlike conduct when playing the game of tennis.

In short, no matter what the circumstances or the occasion or the pessure of the moment, Arthur Ashe was trained over the entire course of his formative years to be “The Quiet Man” no matter what.

It was to be a lesson Arthur learned well.

For a period, Arthur was not allowed to play in any integrated tennis tournaments in Virginia but eventually he was given permission to play in such a tournament and to the astonishment of many “The black kid won”.

In December 1960, and again in 1963, Ashe featured in Sports Illustrated, appearing in their Faces in the Crowd segment which highlighted up and coming people to watch in the field of sport. He became the first African-American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis title and was awarded a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963.

In the same year Ashe became the first black player ever selected for the United States Davis Cup team and in 1965, ranked the number 3 player in the United States, Ashe won both the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) singles title and the doubles title (with Ian Crookenden of New Zealand), helping UCLA win the team NCAA tennis championship.

In 1965 and in 1967 he reached the final of the Australian open but lost on both occasions.

In 1965 he had reached the semi-final of what was to become the US Open although at that time it was not a truly open tournament at all.

It was only in 1968 that the US Open became a fully open tournament where any of the top players in the world could enter freely and that first “US Open” was won by Arthur Ashe. Not only that but in the same year he had won the US Amateur Championship and so became the first black male to lift either championship and the only player in the history of tennis to have won both in the same year.

In 1968, Ashe was  a confirmed amateur player and so could not collect the winner’s prize money for the US Open with the money concerned going to runner up Tom Okker of Holland. Ashe was still registered  with the US army, where he was a lieutenant working at West Point, and was only paid $20/day in expenses for competing at Forrest Hills.

Now it should be remembered that all of this occurred at a very volatile time for black Americans.

Malcolm X had been shot in 1965, Martin Luther king had been shot only four months before Ashe won the US Open and Mohammad Ali had been stripped of his title by the boxing authorities in 1967 for refusing to go to Vietnam with the US Military.

However Ashe was no public militant and was a leading part of the US Davis Cup team which won the cup for America by defeating the reigning champions on their home soil in Adelaide Australia between 26th and 28th December. The following year saw the American team retain the cup by beating Romania with Ashe defeating legendary player and coach Ion Tiriac and the crazy and mercurial genius called Ile Nastase whom he defeated in an epic straight sets win 6-2, 15-13, 7-5.

1969 was to be a pivotal year in the life of Arthur Ashe, and indeed in the lives of countless thousands if not millions who were unknown to the tennis player from Virginia.

In that year the then reigning US tennis champion decided to apply for a visa to travel to South Africa to play in the South African open. The application was refused on the basis of the colour of the applicant’s skin.

To “skinny” it was like being kicked off the park in Richmond only this time he was not prepared to simply walk away quietly.

Over the next 5 years, Arthur Ashe would apply repeatedly for a visa to travel to South Africa with a view to entering tennis tournaments there and winning them. The purpose of the applications was to show the apartheid supporting government that a free black man could come to their country and defeat the white man at his chosen sport.

When the visas were repeatedly refused he used this example of discrimination to campaign for U.S. sanctions against South Africa and the expulsion of the nation from the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF). Arthur Ashe was now a gentleman on the tennis court but a militant off it with South Africa in particular becoming a focus for his activism.

On the tennis court Ashe continued to achieve success. In 1970 he won the Australian open and led the US to their third consecutive Davis Cup title claiming that success in the Davis Cup was far more important to any individual achievement. This is a view he held and repeated throughout his entire career.

In 1971 he won the French doubles title at Roland Garros with Marty Reissen and reached yet another Australian Open final (his 4th) losing to Roy Emerson.

Due to his membership of the World Championship Tennis organisation (The WCT) the International Lawn Tennis Association banned him from entering the French and Wimbledon championships in 1972 but in the same year he reached the final of the US Open where he once again faced the crazy Nastase. This was to be the biggest disappointment of his career because he was leading the mad Romanian by two sets to one and by four games to one and let the match slip losing in an epic 5 setter.

To be fair, Nastase was the best player in the world at the time and he played some fantastic tennis to win, but Ashe was annoyed by his on court gamesmanship and openly criticised Nastase for his antics on the court which clearly put Arthur off his game.

Yet the relationship between the two players was a strange one. While Ashe despised Nastase’s court antics, he marvelled at his tennis abilities. Not only that, in his campaign against the South African Government and The South African Tennis Association Arthur Ashe was to find that he had no greater or more vociferous supporter than the Bucharest Buffoon as Nastase was known.

Where Ashe would at least be congenial to individual South African tennis players, Nastase greeted every single South African of his acquaintance with the same greeting: “Hello Racist!”.

It was during the 1972 US Open that a number of players began to express concern that they were not properly represented in the world of tennis and that they were being underpaid in terms of the sport’s growing worldwide appeal. The players felt that they were being manipulated by promoters and tournament directors and so it was decided to form the Association of Tennis Professionals ( The APT ) with Arthur Ashe at the forefront of the campaign. By 1974 the other players had elected him to the position of APT President.

In 1973 the APT voted by single vote to boycott the Wimbledon tournament of that year. Ashe was one of those who voted for the boycott and the decision was widely criticised by the press, by Wimbledon officials and the International Lawn Tennis Federation who were openly hostile to over 83 players demonstrating this exhibition of “player power”.

Accordingly, for two consecutive years when it could be argued that Ashe was at the peak of his game he missed out on Wimbledon twice and the French open once.

Then in November 1973, with the South African government seeking to end their Olympic ban and re-join the Olympic movement, Ashe was finally granted a visa to enter the country for the first time to play in the South African Open. It had taken fully five years of persistent and relentless lobbying to allow him the right to enter the country under an American flag.

As it turned out, he lost in the final of the competition to Jimmy Connors, but won the doubles with partner Tom Okker.

Despite boycotts against South African sport, Ashe believed that his presence could help break down stereotypes and that by competing and winning the tournament, it would stand as an example of the result of integration, and help bring about change in apartheid South Africa. He reached the singles final again in 1974, losing in straight sets to Connors for the second consecutive year.

However, later, in 1977, Ashe addressed a small crowd of boycott supporters at the U.S Open and admitted that he had been wrong to participate in South Africa and once again supported the boycott of South African players after he had tried to purchase tickets for some young Africans for a tennis match in South Africa, and was told to use an “Africans only” counter. In the media, Ashe again called for South Africa to be expelled from the professional tennis circuit and Davis Cup competition.

Between March 1974 and May 1975, Arthur Ashe defeated Bjorn Borg no less than 5 times in separate ranking tournaments including the WCT finals in Dallas. During the same period, he defeated old friend and foe Tom Okker in the finals of three separate tournaments and so by the time he came to Wimbledon in June 1975 he had been declared champion in Barcelona, Munich, Dallas, Stockholm and Rotterdam.

The story behind Arthur Ashe’s victory in the Wimbledon final of 1975 is the stuff of legend. Connors was the heavy favourite having defeated Ashe in every single previous match between the two. “Fighting Jimmy” and his steel racquet represented a new brash era for tennis and the American from Philadelphia was expected to blow all opponents away for some time to come.

It is hard now to imagine just why the only bespectacled black man on the tennis circuit was seen as “old school” and “establishment” in comparison to Connors, but Ashe was viewed as the gentleman no hoper against streetfighting Jimmy.

Not only that, but the background to the final is fascinating in that there was real enmity between the two men and only days before the final Connors commenced legal action against Ashe personally suing him for $5 Million.

Connors was already suing the ATP, with Ashe as its president, for alleged restraint of trade after opposition from the ATP and French officials meant he was refused entry to the 1974 French Open as a contracted member of World Team Tennis (WTT). Just two days before the start of the Wimbledon tournament, it had been announced that Connors was now raising court proceedings against Ashe personally for $5 million. The action was a result of comments in a letter Ashe had written to ATP members in his role as president, criticizing Connors insistence that Davis Cup captain Dennis Ralston should be fired and slating Connors “unpatriotic” boycott of the competition which had started after Ralston left him out of the team against the West Indies in Jamaica in March 1972.

On final day, Ashe pointedly and symbolically wore his U.S.A. Davis Cup warm-up jacket when walking out onto Centre Court and he put the jacket on again during the award ceremony while receiving the trophy and winners cheque.

There are some great stories behind the fantastic Ashe win that day. It is said that the night before the final Ashe went for dinner with fellow and friend Charlie Passarell  and long-time friend and mentor Pancho Gonzales.

Gonzales in particular was a wily old tennis fox and rebel who had outraged Wimbledon officials in 1969 when playing an epic match against Passarell. With the light fading, Pancho had suggested to the umpire that he could no longer see and that play should be suspended. When the umpire refused, Gonzales repeatedly fired the ball in the direction of the umpire’s chair feigning lack of vision due to bad light. Play was suspended. The final score was an improbable 22-24, 1–6, 16-14, 6–3, 11-9. With Pancho going on to the fourth round of the championship, where he was beaten in four sets by …………………. Arthur Ashe.

However, on the evening of the Ashe v Connors final the three old men of tennis ( Ashe was by this time 32 ) sat round a table and discussed how to defeat the power of Connors. It was decided that Ashe should repeatedly throw up lobs and play drop shots to take the pace out of the game and repeatedly place the ball rather than play his traditional power serve and volley shots which Jimmy could simply power back with his Wilson.

At 5’ 10” Connors was not the tallest player and the thinking was that a mixture of overheads and touch play would put him out of his traditional rhythm.

Another story told regarding Ashe during 1975 is that he practised by placing a chair on the opposite side of the net. The chair was repeatedly moved around the court and as balls were fired at Arthur in practice he was told that there was one golden rule: “Do not hit the chair when returning!”

Ashe apparently practised for week after week deliberately not hitting the chair no matter where it was placed.

Then, after weeks of such practice, the routine was changed with the instruction being that no matter what kind of shot was fired at him and no matter where the chair was placed on the other side of the net, Arthur now had to hit the chair time after time.

Amazingly, the story goes that using this technique Arthur Ashe became astoundingly accurate in learning to place the ball into a specific spot and the tournament results of 1975 show that he perfected this technique with deadly accuracy.

On July 5th 1975, in the first all American Wimbledon final since 1947, Arthur Ashe blew Jimmy Connors away by lobbing, dinking, and placing the ball wherever he wanted to. Connors had no answer and never got into the game.

Shortly afterwards he dropped the law suit.

After the Wimbledon final, Ashe continued to play and won the Australian Open doubles with Tony Roche in January 1977, but a left foot heel injury requiring surgery a month later and subsequent long-term rehabilitation saw his world ranking drop to a lowly 257th before a remarkable comeback saw him rise back to 14th in the world again at the age of 35.

However, unknown to everyone, his longstanding health was not good and in June 1979 he suffered a heart attack while hosting a tennis clinic in New York. Emergency examinations revealed that one of his arteries was completely closed, another was 95 percent closed, and a third was closed by 50 percent in two places. As a result  he had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery in December 1979 and despite recovering from the surgery and being on the verge of a tennis comeback, he officially retired in April 1980, aged 36.

Both his father and his mother had congenital heart conditions and it would appear that it was a bit of a miracle that Arthur Ashe had ever been any kind of sportsman at all.

By the time playing career came to an end Arthur Ashe’s record stood at 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles.

After his retirement, Ashe took on many roles, including writing for Time magazine and The Washington Post, commentating for ABC Sports, founding the National Junior Tennis League, and serving as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1981-1985.

Ashe had always believed passionately in the Davis cup and was determined to emulate his achievements as a player where the US had won three titles in a row by bringing the cup back to America.

In this quest he was aided and abetted by, on the face of it, the most unlikely of allies – John Patrick McEnroe.

Where Jimmy Connors and some of the other top flight American players of the time had eschewed and abandoned the Davis Cup in favour of lucrative prize money events, McEnroe had grown up with the tradition of Davis Cup and was a keen supporter of the tournament.

However, JP McEnroe was the absolute antithesis of “Gentleman Arthur” and he embarked upon a series of court demonstrations which absolutely outraged Ashe.

The Davis cup captain stated openly that he had absolutely no time for McEnroe’s fiery and petulant attitude towards officials, umpires and opponents and it would be fair to say that at first he had no idea how he was going to handle McEnroe as captain at all – if McEnroe decided to play and if McEnroe could be managed at all.

Yet, for all of the antics and the petulance, Arthur Ashe openly said that John McEnroe possessed tennis skills and touches that Arthur himself could only dream off.

As a commentator, Ashe once described McEnroe as being like a surgeon with a scalpel. He said that while Borg and Connors battered opponents with power and spin, McEnroe lanced and nicked opponents with drop shots, heavy slice and unreturnable shots that got into their head and so cut opponents up with a nick here and a nick there with the result that they found that they were literally bleeding to death on the tennis court.

The relationship between the two men is worth a book on its own. Like Nastase before him, young McEnroe had no time for Arthur’s gentlemanly ways and at times considered him to be a weak captain and a poor leader.

Yet, underneath the New Yorker had an admiration for the pure tennis pedigree of Ashe and recognised the dignity and goodness of the once skinny boy from Richmond.

The two had many public quarrels some of which were fierce and brutal with McEnroe occasionally letting his temper go and saying the most derogatory things about Ashe as a captain and a man.

On one famous occasion McEnroe was persuaded to come directly from a tournament to play a vital Davis Cup rubber against Argentina in Buenos Aries. His opponent was the brilliant Guillermo Vilas and the match went to five sets before a very hostile crowd who took every opportunity to berate McEnroe, throw garbage on him and spit at him.

McEnroe was losing, his hands were literally bleeding from holding the racquet, and he was injured, knackered and was a beaten man in the 5th set ……….. and Arthur Ashe simply looked on and thought that he had never admired any tennis player as much in his life.

Sitting with a towel over his head, McEnroe turned to Ashe and asked if he had any words of advice. Apparently, Ashe simply said something like “ You are the best player in the world, a far better player than I could ever be, who am I to give advice to you?”

At this McEnroe is said to have retorted “Is that it? Is that all you have to say?” and then completely lost the plot at Ashe in front of the cameras and so absolutely humiliating him in public. Ashe was outraged.

McEnroe still lost the match, but later explained that he had meant none of what he had said and insisted that at that stage in the match he needed to get angry at someone and something if he had any chance of beating Vilas and winning the match for the USA. Ashe just happened to be handy.

This incident is vitally important when it comes to understanding something that Arthur Ashe did and said later.

He was a very successful Davis Cup captain and he succeeded in his quest to bring the cup back to the states.

However, more and more he was drawn away from tennis by his health problems and his other consuming passions which were civil rights, the under privileged, the lot of the black man and woman and South Africa in particular.

In 1983, Arthur Ashe underwent a second heart operation which was intended to carry out some corrective surgery as a result of some errors resulting from his 1979 operation.

In the same year he had what he described himself as one of the best days of his life.

In 1971, Ashe had been touring the Cameroon when he discovered a young boy playing tennis. He and Charlie Passarell gave the boy some coaching and Arthur eventually gave the boy one of his racquets to keep. He was also instrumental in getting the boy into the French Tennis Federation in Nice and he was a courtside commentator for American television when his prodigy became the first French black player to win the men’s single title at Roland Garros in 1983. He then conducted the obligatory on court interview with the new champion before the cameras and the cheering French crowd. The player concerned was, of course, Yannick Noah.

Apart from doing his match summariser and commentator for American TV, the once “Quiet Man” was now an active civil rights campaigner. He was a member of a delegation of 31 prominent African-Americans who visited South Africa to observe political change in the country as it approached racial integration. He was arrested on January 11, 1985, for protesting outside the Embassy of South Africa, Washington, D.C. during an anti-apartheid rally. He was arrested again on September 9, 1992, outside the White House for protesting on the recent crackdown on Haitian refugees.

In September 1988, Arthur Ashe was hospitalized once again after experiencing paralysis in his right arm. He underwent exploratory brain surgery and after a number of tests, doctors discovered that Ashe had developed toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that is commonly found in people infected with HIV.

Subsequent tests later revealed that Ashe was HIV positive with his doctors believing he contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his second heart surgery in 1983. Once again, Arthur had conducted a hugely active life without ever realising that he was ill in this way. He and his wife decided to keep his illness private for the sake of their daughter, Camera, who was then two years old.

At the time, HIV and AIDS was considered not only a death sentence but also a disease which only struck at people who were, in the opinion of many, morally reprehensible. The disease was thought to affect only promiscuous gay men and intravenous drug users and Arthur Ashe was neither.

Ashe eventually went public with his illness and began to work to raise awareness about AIDS and advocated teaching sex education and safe sex. He also fielded questions about his own diagnosis and attempted to clear up the misconception that only homosexuals or IV drug users were at risk of contracting AIDS.

In September 1992, Ashe suffered a mild heart attack yet was well enough to address the United Nations General Assembly on World AIDS Day, December 1, 1992,  where he called for the growing need for AIDS awareness and increased research funding saying “We want to be able to look back and say to all concerned that we did what we had to do, when we had to do it, and with all the resources required”

Ashe founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. Two months before his death, he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to help address issues of inadequate health care delivery and was named Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year.

Arthur Ashe died on February 6, 1993,  from AIDS-related pneumonia at a New York Hospital. His funeral was held at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Centre in Richmond, Virginia, on February 10th and Governor Douglas Wilder allowed his body to lie in state at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond.

More than 5,000 people lined up to walk past the casket. Andrew Young, who had performed the service for Ashe’s wedding in 1977, in the chapel of the United Nations, officiated at his funeral.

Over 6,000 mourners attended.

Ashe requested that he be buried alongside his mother, Mattie, who died in 1950, in Woodland Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

So that is a brief and potted history of Arthur Ashe – or is it?

I ask the question because in the intervening years since his death more and more has come to light about the legend of Arthur Ashe and the effect that he has had on other people.

During his lifetime Ashe campaigned repeatedly for many different causes. He championed those who suffered from AIDS, heart disease, brain cancer and many other maladies.

He set up foundations for the better health of inner city kids and deprived families.

He founded coaching schools for juveniles and kids who wanted to learn how to play tennis but who came from backgrounds where they could not join clubs.

There are numerous awards and prizes that bear his name throughout the length and breadth of America and of course the American Tennis Federation and the ATP pronounce his name loudly.

The home of American tennis is not named after McEnroe, Connors, Budge, Tilden, Smith, Sampras, Agassi, Williams, Evert or anyone else – it is named after Arthur Ashe the skinny black kid who got kicked off the court in Richmond all those years before.

On July 14th 2014 Andy Murray was awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his work with a variety of charities, including the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and Stand Up To Cancer.

Every year since 1993, ESPN award the Arthur Ashe award for courage at a huge gala event which receives nationwide coverage. Although it is a sport-oriented award, it is not limited to sports-related people or actions, as it is presented annually to individuals whose contributions “transcend sports”

Past winners include Mohammad Ali, George Weah, Tommy Smith and John Wesley Carlos who stood with the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics just weeks before Ashe won his US Open title. The list of other winners is impressive.

Yet I believe none of these things demonstrate the real value and influence of Arthur Ashe.

I started this piece with the tale of an Irishman whose story resonated in a US magazine and which became a piece of Hollywood folklore many years later.

Well, Arthur Ashe wrote two books one of which he said was the most important and valuable thing he ever did. The second was the most astonishing autobiographical piece I have ever read.

Many years ago, I was given a copy of Days of Grace which was written by Arthur Ashe when he was dying from his Aids related illness.

This was not really a book about tennis, but rather the story and the thoughts of a black man who had led Arthur Ashe’s life.

In it, he talks about his regret and guilt at being “The Quiet Man” and how during the sixties he perhaps should have been more of an activist when it came to civil rights and protest within America. He openly expresses his wish that in many ways he had not been “gentleman” Arthur and had not had that great sense of sportsmanship drilled into him from an early age. This regret is not because he wanted to challenge more line calls or win more points in a tennis match, but because he felt he could have done more for his fellow black man given his influence as the only black man to have won a US Open and a Wimbledon title.

Further, it is remarkable book in that it reveals that despite the heart problems, his contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion and all that has befallen a once champion athlete, Arthur Ashe’s greatest asset is his humility.

At some point he was publicly asked if he ever thought “Why Me?” in relation to the AIDS illness. The questioner asks          “ Given that the transmission of the disease was just plain bad luck and that there is no cure, do you ever wonder – Why Me?”

The response is remarkable:

Ashe’s reasoning is that out of all the people who play tennis in the world only a tiny minority get to play the game and earn a living at it. Of those, an even smaller minority get to play in Grand Slam events and very very few humans ever get as far as a quarter final. Even fewer get to a final and an odds defying number get to win at Wimbledon. He then points out that he did to stop to think “Why me?” when he was lifting the trophy on centre court so why should he stop and think that way now because of AIDS and misfortune?

Days of Grace is one of, if not the, best sports books I have ever read and the last chapter – where Arthur Ashe writes an open letter to his then six year old daughter from his deathbed – could only fail to bring a bucket of tears from someone who has a heart of pure stone.

However, having said all of that it is Ashe’s other book which he was most proud of.

Published in 1988 it was a six year labour of love charting the story, history and lessons to be learned from many of the black American sports stars of the past.

Entitled, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete the book charts not only the sporting careers of the many men and women within its pages, but points out the very real struggles that these so called superstars had to endure in their own country despite their sporting prowess.

Ashe points out that very few were able to enjoy a peaceful and successful life despite their sporting successes. They were still discriminated against, remained poor and impoverished, and in many cases were destitute and absolutely on the breadline while similar white sports stars were lauded and made fortunes.

In later years Ashe called on black communities to push back from seeing the way forward for many black children as being through the baseball diamond, the running track, the football field and the boxing ring.

Ashe had a degree in Business Management and was a straight A student. He explained that he could never explode on a tennis court and rage at a linesman because in the sixties he was afraid that the watching white public would castigate all black kids like that and that there would be repercussions for others if he behaved that way.

Accordingly he played the role of the Quiet Man.

Yet, when asked many years later who he most admired on a tennis court his reply was automatic: The answer was John Patrick McEnroe partly because of his sublime gifts with the racquet but mostly because he envied McEnroe’s ability ……….. To Rage! And fire himself up.

It was only in later years that Ashe realised that he longed to rage, to get angry and to fight against oppression vocally, loudly and forcibly with rage!

In Days of Grace, he talks about the shame and embarrassment of being arrested in front of the South African Embassy yet knowing that his cause was just, his protest was right and that his opponent was evil and unfair. Yet the “Quiet Man” syndrome that had been drilled into him from the days of his childhood struggled with the act of civil disobedience.

More and more people have come to read and listen to the words of Arthur Ashe, and the more people talk in his name, raise money in his name and through his foundations, and reward others’ good deeds by making presentations in his name – so his legend grows.

What is not widely known is the effect of Arthur’s own personality and his own words had on one very significant person.

In the same way that Maurice Rush’s story The Green Rushes travelled thousands of miles so did Arthur Ashe’s story about the black American sports stars of yesteryear.

In particular, that book made its way to a prison cell thousands and thousands of miles away from Richmond Virginia and it was read from cover to cover and back again by a sports mad inmate. The man concerned wanted to know more about this Arthur Ashe and even made requests for a tennis court to be laid out in the prison yard so that he and other inmates could play tennis on a regular basis.

Not only that, but the prisoner had been writing a book for many years and after reading A Hard Road To Glory he decided to plagiarise the title slightly: he called his book A Long Walk To Freedom.

When Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island he was asked who he wanted to meet?

Among the first people he named, and definitely the first American named, was Arthur Ashe!

When Mandela came to New York after his release there is a moment when he is seen waiving to a crowd along with Mayor David Dinkins. At one point, Dinkins whispers in Mandela’s ear.

Mandiba involuntarily stops what he is doing, bursts into a huge smile and says audibly:

“ Arthur? Is Here?”

And at that point the two men meet for the first time.

I will let Arthur Ashe’s own words tell the rest of the story:

““I watched [New York City mayor David Dinkins] go over to Mandela and whisper in his ear. I saw Nelson’s head rise abruptly, and he broke into a beautiful smile.

“Arthur is here?” he asked, with obvious surprise and delight.

“He’s right here,” David said, turning to me.

“Oh my brother,” Nelson said, looking straight at me. “Come here!”

He threw his arms around me and held me for a moment in a most affectionate embrace. He told me that in prison, he had read my three-volume work A Hard Road to Glory, about black American athletes.”

Ashe noted what so many felt, that for Mandela, “to have spent twenty-seven years in jail … to have been deprived of the whole mighty centre of one’s life, and then to emerge apparently without a trace of bitterness, alert and ready to lead one’s country forward, may be the most extraordinary individual human achievement that I have witnessed in my lifetime.”

The connection between Mandela and Ashe had evolved into the most significant international bond ever between a politician and an athlete. After all, the two agreed that, as Mandela wrote, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite that little else has … It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Mandela and Ashe would meet again in Johannesburg, London, and then in New York, at the Waldorf Astoria where, with the onslaught of Ashe’s deadly malady, their roles were oddly reversed. With courage and wisdom, Mandela the student, learned about Ashe’s new cause, AIDS awareness. When the end was approaching for tennis’ great humanitarian, Mandela wrote to Ashe, “I can never forget my own joy at meeting you. I hope you feel my embrace across the continents and that it serves to let you know that we love you and wish you well.”

Mandela played tennis as a young man, recalling, “I was by no means an expert. My forehand was relatively strong, my backhand regrettably weak. But I pursued the sport for exercise, not style… I was a backcourt player who only approached the net when I had a clear slam.”

A key part of the Mandela story is how, after years of a gutsy Gandhi-like disobedience campaign for prisoner rights, he gained the counterintuitive respect of his jailers, who evolved from sadistic brutes into respectful professionals that granted prisoners appropriate privileges. Years later, this same process of transforming his foes was replicated on a larger stage when his diplomatic brilliance led to the demise of apartheid. On Robben Island, the prisoners used their hard-earned rights to paint a huge green rectangle in the middle of their grim prison yard. They then added white lines and put up a net to create the world’s most poignant tennis court.

Ashe had first heard of Mandela’s name when he was attempting to get into South Africa without success. Ray Moore a South African professional had told him that there might be one man who could help him get into the country.

“Is he white?” asked Ashe

“ No he is a prisoner: He is a lawyer in jail called Mandela” said Moore in 1969

“Never heard of him” said Ashe

“ Well you will!” replied Moore.

There is much more to write about Mandela and Ashe. How Ashe demanded that blacks and whites sit together when he played in South Africa and how Mandela read Ashe’s words and realised that sport could be a great unifying weapon if put to the right purpose.

Along with Harry Belafonte, Ashe had formed Artists and Athletes against Apartheid and in retirement Mandela took to painting with many of his whimsical works featuring a tennis court.

I decided to write this piece just now because on Friday night at 9pm on BBC 2 there will be a broadcast documentary on the life of Arthur Ashe called more than a champion.

You will hear testimony from many great tennis players including Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Stan Smith, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe and others all talk about the skinny kid from Richmond.

An older, wiser and mellower John McEnroe will openly shed a tear and tell the world that he is a far better man for having known Arthur Ashe and that the world is a poorer place without him.

I have read in other articles that had he lived there are those who would have supported the idea of a campaign to make Ashe president of the United Stares such was his charisma, integrity and his ability to reach out across a nation which to this day remains hugely divided.

At a time when we have recently had shootings in Charlestown and there is frequent friction between black and white all across America the timing of the programme could not better.

Do not miss this programme as it will probably explain and say more than I could ever do.

There are various video pieces on Ashe with one very moving one where Yannick Noah explains just why he is his hero and all that Ashe did for him and his family.

Days of Grace by Arthur Ashe is a must read book for any human being.

40 years from his heyday, Arthur Ashe is still the only black man on the planet to have won the Wimbledon crown  and scaled the heights of the sport of tennis. Away from the court he has inspired millions to never give up on freedom, heart disease, brain cancer, AIDS, injustice, bigotry and apartheid wherever it may occur.

In 2009, Nelson Mandela was awarded and gratefully received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage from ESPN. That very fact and those words in that order,tells you something.

I finish once again with Arthur Ashe’s own words:

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

“From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”

“I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments.”

Beware the influence of the quiet man.

New Balls Please.

Play

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One Response to “DAYS OF GRACE – THE STORY OF A QUIET MAN”

  1. eurochamps67 June 24, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    Excell first draft J, cannae wait to read the full version

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