The autograph. I am not even sure that it happened, not even sure that I met the man, but he figured in my early life a long, long time ago when I was learning to play tennis. The book The Invisible Gorilla explains lapses like this, our misinformed memories. It’s unlikely that I ever got Arthur Ashe’s autograph, but for a long time I have believed that I did. And for a long time he has inspired me with his sportsmanship and grace.
Inspiration for fair and fierce competition has been on my mind as I watch our teams move through final games. Who are the role models? Does performance mesh with character? Does the athlete do more than carry himself or herself within the context of competition and skill? At an early age, Arthur Ashe, who has been compared to Jackie Robinson, broke barriers in the all white tennis world, shattered tennis records, and was a strong voice in the anti-apartheid movement that pressured the South African government. And he did it with grace. That’s inspiration beyond the game.
My parents put a racquet in my hands when we lived in Japan in the 1960s and pushed me out onto a tennis court. I took lessons from a patient Japanese tennis master in a park. We moved to Hong Kong and I continued lessons with Mr. Chan on a tennis court chiseled into the side of a mountain. They taught me about footwork, refined groundstrokes, and worked on a wobbly serve. Above all they taught me patience.
Living in a foreign country and aware enough of the Vietnam War to know, even as a child, that my welcome in the landscape of Asia was a delicate matter that put me in a different mindset. There’s a term for kids who grow up in distant cultures and distant lands – third culture kids. That’s what I was. Not of this culture or that, but somewhere stuck in between and looking for adventure, distraction, role models. In my memory, Arthur Ashe came to Hong Kong and played in a tournament there. I am sure of it. And I got him to sign a slip of paper in an autograph line, which I then put in a small cedar box.
I have been re-reading parts of John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, an account of a 1968 match played between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. The presence of Arthur Ashe floats off the page just as it must have floated on the court when he was racking up wins, breaking serves, and inspiring a generation of players. I have read about his work ethic, his practice, his father, and his self-discipline. There must have been something about those grainy black and white television matches, and those interviews and photographs that made him stick in my mind when I was a boy. The stands against apartheid, the barriers he broke in this country, the Davis Cup wins, the number 1 rankings…these are things I could not have known as a child, but something made it into my consciousness.
Isn’t it our hope that every young athlete has a figure like Arthur Ashe in his or her life? An athlete of skill, competitive fire, and grace? An athlete who inspires as much outside of competition as within? Maybe I never got his autograph. Never tucked it in that small cedar box the way I imagine it happened. But he’s a man that made a difference to a small boy in a way that resonates through the years.
Thank you to Rich Tilton P'16, P'18 for the Proctor athletics images in this post. Please share your thoughts with me in the comments below, and follow me on Twitter.
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School