Thursday, August 30, 2012

Black Tennis: Ashe's Living Legacy

In spite of the obstacles, I decided to proeed with the book because I became obsessed with so many unanswered questions. How did black America manage to create such a favorable environment for its athletes? Why did so many blacks excel so early on with so little training, poor facilities and mediocre coaching? Why did the civil rights organizations of the time complain so little about the discrimination against black athletes? And why were white athletes so afraid of competing on an equal basis with blacks? I just had to have my own answers to these and other puzzling sets of facts.
- Arthur Ashe, VIEWS OF SPORT: Taking The Hard Road with Black Athletes (1988)
He was a union president, a college professor, an author, a father, a Grand Slam winner, and an AIDS victim. However, there is one word that can best describe the late Arthur Ashe.


Arthur Ashe was a man in pursuit of answers. In a life cut short by a erroneous blood transfusion, Ashe served in the military, fought to end apartheid, encouraged scholarship in an area once deemed trivial by his myopic counterparts, struggled for equal pay, and taught courses at Florida Memorial University, a historically black college in South Florida.

Oh yeah, and he won 3 Grand Slam tennis championships.

As tennis fans and New Yorkers emigrate to the gray tops of Flushing Meadows, I'd bet most consider adjectives like "guile" and "passion" reserved for guys like David Eckstein and Toby Gerhart. Most tennis fans know of Jimmy Connors' dominance, but do they know of the man who goaded Connors into a cavalcade of expletives at pristine Wimbledon? Do they know of the man that lost the 1970 South African Open because he was denied entry to that country? Alas. Arthur Ashe is a hero, knighted by some for the less outstanding reasons.

What is Arthur Ashe's legacy? To whom can we attribute Arthur Ashe's living legacy? 

I, too, am on the search for answers to my questions. 

                                   2012 U.S. Open = Black Tennis 

Name: Donald Young
Hometown: Chicago, IL; Atlanta, GA
Longest Run at U.S. Open: 4th Round
ATP Singles Record: 35-82

I'll admit: I'm a sucker for opening round tennis. Day 1 tennis is like an American Idol city marathon: big premiere, auditions, embarrassing performances, and artful survival. Tennis vets would advise against Ashe Court on Day 1 and I'd agree, if I wasn't a big fan of seeing powerhouses wipe the hard court with pretenders.

Night 1 is always game for a good showcase, and 2012 had Wimbledon's best (but London's worst) Roger Federer playing against Donald Young, a young brother from Peachtree Lane, Street, Highway, Court, Drive, Avenue. Donald Young is a good-looking guy: soulful eyes, languid face, cap cocked to his right ear, with an attitude too cool for school and too fresh for Fed. Too bad Fed don't care about looking good on the Ashe black. Fed hit him with that "BAP! BOOM! AHH!" and Don immediately started looking up showtimes for the Apollo.

Don Young is a solid tennis player. Don Young is also the coolest cat on the circuit. But Don Young needs to have a care in this world, along with a backhand that won't betray him.

Name: James Blake 
Hometown: Yonkers, NY
Longest Run at U.S. Open: Quarters (2005, 2006)
ATP Singles Record: 350-235

James Blake just had to win that match.

It happened back in 2005, when he lost to old man Agassi in the quarters at the U.S. Open. It was Andre's last stand, and everybody in the building was rooting for the hairless wonder to keep his tournament alive. James led the match 2 sets to zip, but was out-maneuvered in Set 3, outgunned in Set 4, and out-hustled in Set 5.

Only a year prior, Blake was sitting in a hospital bed with a broken neck and shingles. He was happy to be living, let alone playing on the big court against the big name. 

But he had to win that match. Cat hasn't been the same since.

Name: Victoria Duval
Hometown: Miami, FL; Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Longest Run at U.S. Open: 1st Appearance (Lost in 1st Round)
WTA Singles Record: 17-14

I have a cousin named Victoria. She's in culinary school, and can make a layer cake look so good and taste so sweet that you'd think you're in Candy Land. Vicky Duval is a lot like my cousin: smart but innocent, mature for her age, hungry but content. It's a good attitude for a 16-year-old with a streaky serve to have, especially when facing an Open champ set on leaving a lasting legacy. The Belgian blur once mistaken for a pregnant lady was caught off-guard by the Haitian sensation, but remained calm and won the match. 

This was Kim Clijsters' swan song, after all. No great ballad can end without the diva note.

Don't sweat Vicky D though. She's got the sad story and the superstar coach. America will get on board, especially with the wicked first serve. But Haiti already knows. 

Name: Sloane Stephens
Hometown: Plantation, FL
Longest Run at U.S. Open: 3rd Round
WTA Singles Record: 77-57

When people speak of women's tennis without the Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens is the star most often mentioned. Yes, it's probably because they're both black. But she's the one with the sinewy but feminine muscles and the Times Square smile. Her body doesn't match her face in years. Sloane might be the best young American since the sisters, but she's got game beyond her years. Heck, Serena said as much in her Round 1 post-match interview. 

Louisa Thomas gave a great account of Sloane's Round 1 win over #22 Francesca Schiavone:
Her U.S. Open first-round match, in Louis Armstrong Stadium, was against Francesca Schiavone. Schiavone is 13 years older than Stephens and a former French Open champion. As the 22nd seed, the Italian was technically favored, but Stephens was certainly capable of beating her — and she did, in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4. It wasn't the cleanest match. Schiavone is a fighter, and Stephens tightened up, especially with a couple of match points. But the American was clearly the better player, at times thrillingly so. On her last match point, she shot a forehand down the line and flashed the smile. It lit the crowd's eruption.
Sloane Stephens is the cool younger sister: the one that tags along on your trip to the beach and no one notices. Sloane's the quietly aggressive honors students that pulls A's without fanfare. Sloane can sign an autograph, smile for the sponsors, and still look as if she'd be content to run through the sprinkler in her backyard.

Name: Serena Williams
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Longest Run at U.S. Open: Champion (1999, 2002, 2008)
WTA Singles Record: 542-108

Sloane Stephens will have her day in the sun. I'd bet my lunch money on it. But if we're talking in the present tense about top tennis talent, Serena Williams is the brick house. 

Before we put away the big money, I'd like to place another bet. I guarantee that an analyst (or eight) somewhere, in the discussion of U.S. Open 2012 tennis, will diss Serena's passion for the game and openly lament the fact that she could have been the greatest woman tennis player ever. 

My counterpoint: Who's to say she isn't the greatest already?

Australian Open: 5 titles (most ever)
French Open: 1 title
Wimbledon: 5 titles
U.S. Open: 3 titles 
Olympics: 4 Gold Medals (1 singles, 3 doubles)

By all accounts, Serena played in the most competitive era of women's tennis. Let's face it: before Title IX, women's tennis was just American rich kids versus European rich kids. Improved equipment, the trickle-down of Title IX, and less overt racism has created more stars. Too bad Serena got bored with beating up on the Lindsay Davenport's and [insert Russian last names here] of the world, or this entire conversation would be toast.

Name: Venus Williams
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Longest Run at U.S. Open: Champion (2000, 2001)
WTA Singles Record: 616-155

If Serena is [arguably] the greatest woman's tennis player of all-time, what do we do about Venus? Good thing Venus hasn't won 7 majors and 3 Olympic Golds! 

(Oh wait, she has. Oops!)

If I were to write a paragraph about the most overlooked superstars of the last 20 years, I'd have to include Venus along with Tim Duncan, Curtis Martin, and Todd Helton, right?

If I were to tell you that Venus and Serena have won 10 of the last 12 Wimbledon championships, you'd have to agree that the Williams sisters are the best sibling combination in sports history, right?

Name: Jo-Wilfred Tsonga
Hometown: Le Mans, France
Longest Run at U.S. Open: Quarters (2011)
ATP Singles Record: 226-102

Ok, so I cheated a little. Jo Tsonga ain't a black dude from the States, but he's definitely diaspora. He looks like a young Ali and dances like Jabari from College Hill.  He's one of us.

Tsonga is the 5-seed in the 2012 version of this event, and he's been a made man since the day he beat Fed at Wimbledon back in 2011. His serve comes with a vapor trail. His muscles have muscles. He is the most interesting man in the world, and he doesn't drink Dos Equis.

And he'll be around past Labor Day.

Arthur Ashe was a curious man. Curious enough to win a few titles, write a glut of books, and impact future generations of folks - some who look like him and some who don't. Every time we get a new black superstar, they're going to get compared to him.

I'm cool with that.  

- M.B.

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