Michael Grunwald is a senior writer at Politico Magazine. He is the author of “The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.”
Tennis reveals a lot about character, because tennis is a lot like life. Talent matters, but it often matters less than stamina, grit, patience or emotional stability. Forgetting your last mistake and living in the moment can be as powerful a weapon as a blistering serve or inside-out forehand. Tennis requires a kind of reverse empathy, a constant awareness of what your opponent doesn’t want you to do; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes instead of focusing on your own desires is a crucial life skill, even when it’s deployed for ruthless competitive purposes. And no matter how badly things are going, no matter how far you’re behind in a game, set or match, there’s always hope that things can turn around if you don’t give up. Tennis, like life, plays out one point at a time.
This is why the late Arthur Ashe, a pioneering champion on the court and an inspiring activist off the court, is such a compelling subject for a full-length biography. Ashe was a proud black athlete who rose from humble roots in segregated Richmond to disrupt a white country-club sport, shattering stereotypes with mental and emotional gifts that clearly outweighed his physical ones. He was a distinguished civil rights advocate and anti-apartheid fighter who spent his life balancing passion with pragmatism, distancing himself from rabble-rousers as well as racists. Ashe was also a philanthropist, a businessman and a broadcaster who somehow found time to help reshape the structure of the pro tour, write a three-volume history of African American athletes and, in the year before his death at 49, become a prominent advocate for people with AIDS. He lived a short but full life, and the historian Raymond Arsenault has diligently chronicled just about every day of it. Weighing in at 629 pages of text, “Arthur Ashe: A Life” is the kind of very-full-length biography that can break your nose if you doze off while reading it in bed.
Unfortunately, you might. This is a book where more turns out to be less. Arsenault, a well-respected historian of the civil rights movement, exhaustively reconstructs Ashe’s life and does an impressively thorough job embedding Ashe’s activism in the larger context of his times. He is just as meticulous about Ashe’s tennis, dutifully recounting the results of just about every match he ever played, documenting his rise from obscurity in the Jim Crow South to three Grand Slam championships and the Hall of Fame. But the laundry list of scores and opponents gives virtually no sense of what Ashe was like on the court; I had to pull up clips on YouTube while I was reading to get a feel for his precision and opportunism. With the help of Ashe’s three (!) memoirs, Arsenault provides an authoritative view of his subject’s evolving thoughts about race, compromise and resistance, but with a few exceptions, he doesn’t really explore Ashe’s thoughts between the lines — how he maintained his focus, how he handled adversity, how he made adjustments. In an era when bad boys like John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase turned temper tantrums into performance art, Ashe exemplified grace under pressure; like Jackie Robinson and other racial pioneers, he let his game speak for itself. But it’s never quite clear what was going on inside Ashe’s head as he maintained that outward composure.
Arsenault has essentially written two books: an unenlightening rehash of a very good tennis career, and an insightful narrative of the evolution of a remarkable human being. It’s a shame, because the guy on the court was the same guy who tried to bring change to South Africa through engagement and later boycotts, who voted for Jesse Jackson in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988, who was slow to accept women’s equality on tour but later became close friends with Billie Jean King, who disapproved of McEnroe’s bratty behavior but refused to kick him off the Davis Cup team. Arsenault often treats the two sides of Ashe’s life as if he were writing about two separate people, but presumably the intensity, intelligence, flexibility and courage that made Ashe such an interesting man made him an interesting tennis player, too.
The good news is, Ashe was a very interesting man, and Arsenault has sympathetically but comprehensively provided the receipts. The most interesting arc of Ashe’s journey was his evolution on civil rights, from a mostly apolitical athlete who resented the pressure to speak out about the Freedom Summer aimed at registering African American voters just because he happened to be black, to a race man who got arrested at an anti-apartheid protest in Ronald Reagan’s Washington and declared, “I hate injustice much more than I love decorum.”
His journey was not a straight line, and it involved a lot of anguish and introspection. Ashe was often attacked as an Uncle Tom for visiting South Africa during white rule, for opposing affirmative action in the United States and for supporting strict academic standards for student athletes that many activists considered racist. He opposed President Jimmy Carter’s effort to raise the minimum wage because he feared that it would put poor blacks out of work. And while he worked hard to bring tennis to underprivileged communities of color, he was picky about the black players he chose to mentor, freezing out prospects he considered undisciplined or uncouth.
But while Ashe was never a rabble-rouser — and opposed demagogues like Louis Farrakhan — he was a powerful voice for equality. His eventual support for boycotts of South Africa packed more punch because of his earlier efforts to work for change inside the system. His moderate reputation and his hyper-rational demeanor gave his sporadic calls to arms additional force. And his final struggle only enhanced his iconic status as a symbol of dignity and moral seriousness. After contracting HIV from a blood transfusion early in the AIDS epidemic, he became a warrior against stigma, again making the personal political. He used his platform as a celebrity to try to change the world, a risky thing for an athlete to do, especially a black athlete with mainstream endorsements and a nonconfrontational reputation.
Today, of course, many black athletes have been following Ashe’s outspoken example, and the president of the United States has been trashing them as unpatriotic and ungrateful, refusing to host their teams at the White House, using them as a wedge to rile up his overwhelmingly white base. It’s hard to say whether Ashe would have knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. He served a stint in the military and felt strongly about representing his country in the Davis Cup as a player and then captain. (He appreciated McEnroe’s dedication to competing for his country; by contrast, he never liked Jimmy Connors, who was slightly less bratty than McEnroe on the court, because he thought Connors put money ahead of patriotism.) But there is little doubt that Ashe would have defended the right of today’s players to protest police brutality in the manner they saw fit, and would have pushed back against the president and other commentators who have suggested that well-paid black athletes should “shut up and dribble.”
A Fox News pundit lobbed that particular comment at LeBron James. President Trump later mocked James’s intelligence, after watching him on CNN discussing a new school he’s opening for underprivileged kids. Trump likes picking fights with prominent African Americans, from John Lewis to Maxine Waters to Snoop Dogg, but he seems particularly triggered by black athletes who stand up for their rights instead of keeping their mouths shut and playing their games. He would not have liked Arthur Ashe at all. In fact, James is a worthy heir to the Ashe legacy, another honorable and savvy man who has used his celebrity to promote causes he believes in. He’s more than an athlete. He does more than dribble.
But James is also an athlete, and anyone who has watched him play ball knows how preposterous it is to question his intelligence. He is one of the smartest players of his era and one of the least selfish; it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s been successful off the court as well. In the same way, it’s a mistake to remember Ashe as a wise, courageous and influential man who just happened to be an athlete. He was a wise, courageous and influential athlete. It’s who he was.
By Raymond Arsenault
Simon & Schuster.
767 pp. $37.50