Both as an athlete and as a public figure, Arthur Ashe was always something of an enigma. A black Virginian who overcame racial segregation on his way to three Grand Slam tennis titles, Ashe played an aggressive serve-and-volley game even as he cultivated an outwardly unemotional demeanor. ”I’m blacker than Arthur,” his old friend Billie Jean King once quipped. ”I suppose she meant that I was not impulsive or explosive enough,” Ashe comments with characteristic pungency in Days of Grace (Knopf, $24), the graceful memoir (written with Arnold Rampersad) that follows his death from AIDS last February. ”Maybe I should have called her a name, or slapped her around a little, and thus demonstrated my ‘blackness.’ Unfortunately, I don’t call people names, and I have never slapped anybody in my life. Besides, she might slap me back.” As a junior tennis player on the national circuit during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Ashe was taught to channel his aggressions in ways that would offer bigots no possible excuses to disqualify him. ”I learned not so much to turn the other cheek,” he writes, ”as to present, wherever possible, no cheek at all.” Such gentlemanliness was not achieved without cost. During the civil rights revolution, friends tried to assure him that his example was important to the struggle, ”but they never convinced me of it, not completely. There were times, in fact, when I felt a burning sense of shame that I was not with other blacks-and whites-standing up to the fire hoses and the police dogs.” Indeed, for tennis fans, the most penetrating insight into his character may come in his explanation of why, during his tenure as U.S. Davis Cup captain in the early ’80s, Ashe failed to do much to restrain the disgraceful antics of John McEnroe. Partly, he believed, his inaction resulted because he identified with McEnroe’s ferocious competitive spirit and eagerness to play for his country-unlike the Davis Cup apathy displayed by that other Irish- American, Jimmy Connors, whom Ashe disliked. But he also identified with McEnroe’s rage. As for the notion that McEnroe’s and Connors’ boorishness stems from their ethnicity, Ashe will have none of that. But Days of Grace isn’t particularly a book about tennis, nor even about sports -although Ashe’s dissent from the ”deification” of young black athletes and the excuses made for their academic shortcomings ought to be read and discussed. Rather, the book’s main emphasis is on Ashe’s life after his 1980 retirement-his struggles to find a meaningful way to use his celebrity and talents for the betterment of his people, and his courageously dignified struggle against heart disease and AIDS. The AIDS battle-he contracted the disease from a 1983 blood transfusion following heart-bypass surgery-was not one Ashe intended to make public. Outed in the medical sense against his will by USA Today just over a year ago, he bitterly resented what he called ”the divine right of the press” to pry into the most intimate aspects of his life. At pains to insist upon his absolute fidelity to his wife, Jeanne, during 16 years of marriage, he characteristically refused to give in to rage or self-pity and devoted his last months to AIDS education and fund-raising. ”If I don’t ask ‘Why me?’ after my victories, I cannot ask ‘Why me?’ after my setbacks and tragedies. When I played tennis, I never prayed for victory in a match. I will not pray now to be cured of heart disease or AIDS.” If Ashe’s self-possession can seem almost otherworldly at times, few will read the moving letter to his 6-year- old daughter, Camera, which ends the book, without weeping for the memory of this most extraordinary man. A-
EXCERPT On the Outside Looking In I had looked with fascination on athletes who had stood up defiantly and protested against social injustice. Cautious about getting involved in politics and protest myself, I couldn’t help but admire impetuous men such as Muhammad Ali, who struck me as menacing and purposeful even when he was amusing, a charming man but also unmistakably defiant; or the somber, black- gloved athlete-protestors Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who turned the victory stand at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 into a sacrificial altar. Although I did not always agree with everything these men had said and done, I respected the way they had stood tall against the sky and had insisted on being heard on matters other than boxing or track and field, on weighty matters of civil rights and social responsibility and the destiny of black Americans in the modern world. For many years, even as I built my career in tennis, I had guiltily nursed the suspicion that I had not done as much as I should have in the arena of protest and politics, civil rights and social reform.