Monday, April 28, 2014


Lately while immersed in spring tennis, I have come to the realization that great hands in this game means the difference between winning and losing, besides leaving the court with a sense of having played high quality tennis.

What does this new level of observation have to do with all time tennis great, the legendary Arthur Ashe, you may ask? Everything, especially as witnessed first hand by yours truly.

Let us scroll back in time for a few minutes. The year was 1968, I was 12 years old, and Arthur Ashe a player for UCLA and later in the United States military and at West Point (heading its tennis program by the way),  Arthur was getting primed for his debut ushering in the 'open era' at the US Open then held at Forest Hills, New York. At that moment in time Arthur was to win the 1968 United States Amateur Championships. Did I not mention that he won the US Open that September? As an amateur, he could not receive the $14,000 prize.

That summer I was an upstart player, having first walked onto a tennis court, liking the texture of the net and how gently it would move in the summer breeze, back and forth, beckoning, and wondering how I would ever strengthen my forearm so I could hit the ball consistently with the racquet ( I can proudly say I have come a long way since then!). As a group my fellow players would dutifully sit cross- legged on the court while our coach, Mrs. Peg Morrow, tanned with short cropped golden hair, bright blue eyes, would instruct us on the mechanics and basics of this mysterious sport.  Could I own up to the challenge? What if I tripped, ran out of breath, got sunburned, could not see in the sun? Who cares?

Tennis was just what I needed, and my fellow players were eager as well.  We were pumped, prime and ready.  And guess what? Mrs. Morrow was able to get us all into an elite tennis tournament as guests, quite hush hush, where if possible we could meet a young, aspiring tennis player who is ready to take on the best of the best. 

Enter Arthur Ashe. There we sat, my fellow players and myself, again cross- legged in the grass, waiting to meet this young player.  It was a classic summer's day.  Bright blue sky, green trees and tweeting birds. The earth was warm, and we all knew we were in for a long day. 

It was 10:00 in the morning, Arthur was to meet us, then go on to play in the tournament for the rest of the day. Our coach left us to attend to other matters. We were so excited!  Sitting cross-legged, waiting, then all of a sudden, from nowhere, he appeared.  A handsome young man all of 25 years strides across the lawn toward us, silhouetted by bright sun, the glow of summer, he was like a Greek god in our midst.

Arthur apologized for being 10 minutes late, and then an awkward silence enveloped all of us, suddenly we, the 12 year olds, and Arthur, did not know quite what to do with ourselves.  So, Arthur shadow stroked some forehands and backhands, and we dutifully sat there, nodding, and wondering what this was all about.  He is showing us, without a net? A court?  Who knew of shadow stroking in 1968? Certainly not my little band of 5 renegades. Just us 5 with Arthur!  Of course, no one, not even Arthur Ashe would have known of his celebrity, his US Open championship just 6 weeks away, or did we know that day?

I recall his gentleness. His soft voice, his care and concern for each one of us sitting in that little circle in the grass. He talked about the game of tennis.  "Tennis is easy," he told us, remarking that you do not need to hit the ball hard, with the correct strokes the ball will move on its own.

Once the demonstration was over, again silence, Arthur asked to see our racquets. One by one, each stood and offered our racquet to Arthur.  I was embarrassed with my racquet, a Sears Super Ace~

courtesy of eBay

Afterall, the rest of my friends had Wilson racquets, a tennis racquet from Sears? Give me a break, Sears sells screws and hardware, not tennis racquets! I sheepishly offered my Sears Super Ace to Arthur for his examination. "It's from Sears," I say.  

Intuitively, Arthur sensed my mortification, and gently turning the racquet in his soft hands, he remarked, "This is really not such a bad racquet." Pause. "The wood is good, the strings all right, but next year," he says looking directly at me and handing the racquet back,"ask your parents to get you another one. Stick with the sport." Breathing a sigh of relief, I sat back down, and as Arthur suggested, I stayed with the sport and was fortunate to get a Spaulding racquet the following summer, a great wooden racquet for the time period.

Still with time left, Arthur says we have him for 30 minutes. "Any questions?" We are silent. Still in awe with this fabulous person with us. "Hmmm, well, okay," Arthur is filling the time, smoothing the blades of grass with his hand, "Does anyone know how to make those funny sounds with the grass?"

"I do!' I said proudly, still reeling from the Super Ace encounter. I then taught Arthur and the group how to make that squeaky sound with a single blade of grass. " You have to find a strong yet bending blade of grass," I instructed, feeling the turf and picking a blade. "Then you make a tiny slit in the middle, not too small, not too long either." I demonstrate. "Then you place the grass between your two thumbs pressed together, and blow hard!!" I then made a very loud squeak, everyone laughed and proceeded to make their own grass sounds. 

We had so much fun all sitting in our circle with Arthur Ashe, relaxing, daydreaming, making funny squeaky sounds.  We had a symphony of grass sounds going on, my little band of tennis renegades and Arthur Ashe.

What stays with me, besides this special story, is the manner by which Arthur conducted himself.  He role modeled how each person is unique, how you can grow to be that certain someone you are meant to be. 

I love this photograph of Arthur Ashe in the White House, this forever young man could go anywhere, and contribute to all present being the best of the best~

Courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Library

Here is a YOUtube tribute to Arthur, 4 minutes of history and insight~

One of my favorite quotes of Arthur Ashe~  Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

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