Jennifer Frey

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Stadium's Fine Now Honor Ashe by Renovating Tennis

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, August 24, 1997; Page D6

NEW YORK Arthur Ashe would have been happy with what occurred Saturday on the newly renovated grounds of the National Tennis Center. And it would have had very little to do with the unveiling of the new premier court fittingly named Arthur Ashe Stadium for an afternoon of exhibition tennis.

Oh, the stadium is beautiful. It's big and bright, with wide seats and spacious player locker rooms. It's a first-class facility. It should be. The stadium as well as the extensive renovations to the National Tennis Center complex cost the U.S. Tennis Association $254 million. And, after some pointed pressure on the powers that be inside the USTA, it was decided that the stadium would be named in honor of Ashe, rather than some giant corporation that paid big bucks for an advertising boost, as has become the custom in sport these days. It was the right decision.

Saturday, two days before the scheduled start of the U.S. Open, was Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the complex. And anyone who knew Ashe or knew what he stood for knows that this day would have meant far more to him than the building. There were kids on the grounds who have never been inside a country club, never seen an indoor court, perhaps never even owned a tennis racket. There was a diversity of faces and ages unlike any this facility will see during the upcoming U.S. Open. This was tennis for the people, not the corporations that paid $85,000 to $100,000 for the new luxury boxes that sold out in two short months.

For a few hours, kids could hit tennis balls with Amanda Coetzer and John McEnroe, they could watch big-name players such as Pete Sampras practice, they could participate in mini-clinics and test the speed of their serves. On the main court, inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, they could watch Venus and Serena Williams, hair beaded red, white and blue, play exhibition tennis with the Jensen brothers, Murphy and Luke, who wore Rangers jerseys bearing the names and numbers of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. They could, for one afternoon, discover all that is fun and exciting about this sport.

Over the past year, it's been said, again and again, that tennis needs a Tiger Woods. That the sport is dying at least here in the United States because of a lack of significant interest by young people. Long before Woods was even born, it was Ashe's dream to bring diversity to tennis through grass-roots efforts that reached kids who otherwise would never have a chance to play the sport. Ashe hosted countless free clinics and gave countless talks at public schools in the inner city. He helped create programs and foundations to help build interest in tennis one of those groups being the National Junior Tennis League, a branch of the USTA.

Nearly 30 years after Ashe won the 1968 U.S. Open, the sport has not changed, not nearly enough. If anything, Woods's emergence on the golf course has made tennis's lack of diversity even more gallingly apparent. There already is so much excited talk about what Woods's legacy will mean to golf. Let's hope it produces more concrete advancements than, sadly, Ashe's legacy has left on his sport.

There are small triumphs to be found, if one looks hard enough. There are inner-city programs in several major cities, funded by money from the Arthur Ashe Foundation and other sources, that have helped disadvantaged young players earn college scholarships.

Major changes, though, are much harder to find. No African-American has won the U.S. Open since Ashe did so in 1968. In fact, no African-American man or woman has won any Grand Slam singles title since Ashe did so at Wimbledon in 1975. Currently, there are no African-Americans ranked in the top 20 in men's or women's tennis, and the two brightest hopes, MaliVai Washington and Chanda Rubin, have been struggling with injuries. The public and, yes, the media is so hungry for some sign of diversity in tennis that Venus Williams has been treated like a phenomenon even though she has never won a tournament and has yet to prove she has the talent to win one in the future.

In a news conference devoted mostly to talk of the new stadium, Harry Marmion, the president of the USTA, said Saturday that the association plans to unveil details of what he called "a major grass-roots effort" later this week. It is supposed to be a five-year plan dedicated to achieving some of the very principles for which Ashe fought. Here's hoping that plan is something substantial, something as substantial and substantially backed as the organization's renovation of this complex.

American tennis isn't dead yet. Right now, American tennis is represented by a man Pete Sampras who not only is the best player in the world, he's the best player ever. It's worth pointing out, though, that Sampras is a product of a privileged background that provided him with individual coaching and regular access to major tennis facilities as a child. He was not a part of the USTA junior system because he did not need to be.

That is not meant, in any way, to denigrate Sampras's accomplishments. It is simply to say that if American tennis wants a future that is not limited to a certain privileged class, it has to make a more concerted effort to reach out to budding young talents from all economic backgrounds.

Golf has been very fortunate. Like Sampras, Woods had parents who provided him with an exposure to his sport at a young age, as well as substantial training. But when he burst onto the scene, Woods brought with him huge talent and a multicultural background that made him an instant draw to a diverse new fan base. Tennis can't wait around and hope to get as lucky. And Sampras seems to understand that.

Like almost all the players who have experienced the beauty of the new complex this week, Sampras raved about the stadium, the court, the easy accessibility to the locker room, and everything else that the USTA's $254 million have provided.

When asked, though, whether he thought Ashe would have spent all that money on grass-roots tennis, rather than a gleaming complex, Sampras did not hesitate with his answer.

"Probably," he said.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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