A Court Classic

In memory of a greatly missed friend and tennis partner, John Turco (1966-2003)

The U.S. Open is a bittersweet time for tennis lovers. While we have been enjoying these two weeks of high-stakes play and the electric New York atmosphere, we must also accept that this is the last “Slam” of the year. With the end of summer comes the end of the tennis season, the one worth caring about (the pros continue to play year-round but only for cash and ranking points – not for history). Bart Giamatti once wrote that baseball breaks your heart because it “begins in the spring” and “blossoms in the summer,” but “stops and leaves you to face the fall alone” (Take Time for Paradise [1989]). Tennis also leaves you to face the fall alone – and there’s no World Series to cushion the blow.

I have an annual ritual that I turn to for help: I reread the greatest book ever written on tennis, John McPhee’s Levels
 of the Game (1969), a profile of the 1968 U.S. Open semifinal between Arthur Ashe and Clark
 Graebner. The book was described as a “high point of American sports 
journalism” by the New York Times, and it remains a fascinating look at tennis strategy and athletic psychology. Its blow-by-blow of the match also considers the issues of race and class that defined American life in this period of social upheaval.


Arthur Ashe and his trademark slice backhand (Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, 1975)

The book returns us to the final years of the amateur age as tennis began its transition to the lucrative global industry that it has now become (the amateurs Ashe and Graebner actually had day jobs: Graebner, a paper product salesman; Ashe, a lieutenant in the U.S. army). McPhee’s greatest achievement is his portrait of “Ashe before Ashe”: the young tennis player before he became the influential advocate of African-American rights and one of the greatest personalities in the history of American sport. This pre-heroic Ashe is a study in contradictions: he seems like an intellectual though he actually reads little; he appears nonchalant on the court even careless, when he is in truth a ferocious competitor.

In retrospect, we know that in 1968 Ashe was still coming to terms with his identity as an African-American athlete and public figure, after having faced a lifetime of overt and covert racism in his predominantly white, country-club sport. As a child, he was taught to call in balls that were actually out, so that nobody could accuse him – and by extension the black people – of cheating. He learned to keep quiet as opponents stereotyped him with remarks like Graebner’s: “[Arthur’s] an underprivileged type who worked his way up. His family are fine people. He’s an average Negro from Richmond, Virginia.” Graebner genuinely liked and respected Ashe, but his words reveal what a black tennis player was up against in the 1960s: “If [Arthur] were more consistent, he might be easier to play. Negroes are getting more confidence. They are asking for more and more, and they are getting more and more.”

After the match, Ashe went on to have a storied tennis career as champion at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and Australian Open. To many tennis fans, he will be remembered for his dissection of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1974, when he used his cerebral, varied style to defuse the brash, hard-hitting Connors in a match few expected Ashe to win. In addition to his Hall of Fame tennis career, Ashe was an active civll rights proponent, author of a three-volume work on the history of the African-American athlete, and a leader in the nation’s African-American community. By the time of his tragic death at age 49 from an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion, he was one of the best-known names in the history of his sport.

McPhee’s Ashe is a superstar athlete but not quite a legend – and that’s what makes the book such a thrill, the chance to see him still growing, in action: “The ball and the match are spinning into perfect range. Ashe’s racquet is back. The temptation is just too great, and caution fades. He hits for it all. Game, set, match to Lieutenant Ashe. When the stroke is finished, he is standing on his toes, his arms flung open, wide, and high.”

After beating Graebner in the semis, Ashe went on to take the final –  the last amateur ever to win the U.S. Open.