It is that time of year again when the tennis world descends upon New York City for the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) US Open, which has become one of the premier events in all of sports. It is only fitting that the USTA kicks off this tournament with a tribute to a man that exemplifies the grace and dignity the sports is known for.
Before the first volley of the opening set, the USTA takes time to honor Arthur Ashe. The Center’s main stadium is already named in his honor. Ashe’s legacy transcends the sport itself. Like his contemporary, Muhammad Ali, their impact on social causes made them larger-than-life figures. However, unlike Ali, Ashe was a man of few words, but he always got his point across just the same.
I remember as an 11-year old sitting in my living room watching Brother Ashe take on Jimmy Connors one 4th of July weekend. My family was preparing to go a cousin’s house for a barbecue and we were about leave in the middle of the match. Up until that point, I was not a big tennis fan, but I was hoping that the older veteran would shut up the brash Connors. By listening to the commentators, very few people gave Ashe a chance in the match, but that did not deter him.
Shortly into the match, my grandfather joined me and gave me a history listen on what Ashe went through as he rose through the tennis ranks. He told me about how he learned the game on beaten-up tennis courts in Richmond, Virginia, but still went to become one of the top amateurs at UCLA, and eventually go on to become the first African American male to win the US Open. Everyone was ready to leave to go the family gathering, but we ended up staying to watch the entire match.
I was impressed with the way Ashe battled his way to victory, humbling the young blowhard along the way. But I was even more impressed at the way Ashe carried himself during and after the match. If there ever was a reason for a man to gloat and pronounce “Look at me. Look what I just did”, this was it. But he just humbly thanked God and accepted the award.
Some 30 years later. he once again demonstrated the same grace when he found out that he contracted HIV during a simple blood transfusion. Now if there was ever a reason to “Loose one’s religion” it was that. Yet, he accepted his fate and became a spokesperson for finding a cure for this disease, which eventually took his life. He became a drum major for this cause, never complaining up until his death.
His accomplishments on the courts as well as the way he carried himself off the court is reason why the USTA honors him every year so that we do not forget what this man achieved not only athletically, but what he stood for away from the game.
This Saturday, August 27, 2011, the USTA will hold its 16th Annual Arthur Ashe Family Day presented by Hess. Celebrities from the sports and entertainment worlds will come together for one of more festive events held in the city. The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper, the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, Jessica Jarrell and Mindless Behavior are among the mega stars expected to join tennis stars Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick for the ceremony and show.
Entrance to The Billie Jean King Center will be free to the general public and there will be plenty of tennis demonstrations and fun activities for fans of all ages. The admission to the ceremony is $10 for promenade seats and $20 for the loge seats. Tickets can be purchased at the Billie Jean King Center box office, through Ticket Master or online at usopen.org
Ashe spent most of his adult life exposing inner-city kids to the game that he loved and it is in this spirit that the USTA is trying to continue that component of his legacy. Ashe inspired the likes of Zina Garrison, Venus and Serena Williams, and James Blake to strive to be the best despite the obstacles they had to experience. But he also showed us all how to handle adversity with grace and dignity.