Advantage, Mr. Ashe

The late Arthur Ashe scarcely needed the prospect of his imminent death to concentrate his mind wonderfully. His memoir Days of Grace (317 pages, Knopf, $24), dictated to and shaped by the Princeton professor Arnold Rampersad, was composed between June 1992, after Ashe announced he had AIDS, and his death last February. Just about every page suggests that rigorous self-examination was a lifelong habit and that the tennis champion and social activist's self-confessed "aloofness" was the outer shell of a sometimes questing, sometimes inquisitional, always demanding inner life. "To what extent," he recalls wondering, "was I trying to make up, with my anti-apartheid crusade, for my relative inaction a decade or more earlier during the civil-rights struggle? ... While blood was running freely in the streets of Birmingham, Memphis and Biloxi, I had been playing tennis. Dressed in immaculate white, I was elegantly stroking tennis balls on perfectly paved courts in California and New York and Europe."

Even before he contracted AIDS, Ashe, by far the outstanding black player in his traditionally lily-white sport, invited not merely admiration but contemplation. In his 1969 book "Levels of the Game," John McPhee contrasted Clark Graebner's game ("stiff, compact Republican tennis," Ashe told McPhee) with Ashe's (which had "the lackadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal," Graebner said). So much for style revealing the inner man. In "Days of Grace," Ashe says that although he's a Democratic Party supporter he voted for Bush in 1988; he takes a Sowellian black conservative line on affirmative action and felt "racial embarrassment" when Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson revealed their sexual gluttony. Ashe spikes the notion that he's "lackadaisical" in his very first paragraph: "No matter what I do, or where or when I do it, I feel the eyes of others on me, judging me." Those eyes, of course, were really his own.

Ashe, it turns out, knew exactly what people thought about him; no one else's insights would have surprised him much. He knew some people still consider tennis a "'sissy' sport" and that he was suspected (wrongly) of being gay. He knew people thought he was "cold"; he disagreed but admitted to "an emptiness in my soul" since his mother died when he was 6. He came to realize that he admired the player most unlike himself, the tantrum-throwing John McEnroe, for "embodying feelings I could only repress, or as a kind of darker angel to my own tightly restrained spirit." One of his favorite lines of poetry was Dryden's "Beware the fury of a patient man"; when he tells us that "I try hard to keep calm and subdued at all times," he fully understands both the literal meaning of "subdued" and the implications of having to "try hard" to stay that way.

Arthur Ashe had plenty he wanted to tell us before he died: about AIDS, about racism (he called it worse than AIDS, and he wasn't being rhetorical), about morality, religion and family. Much of this is finely argued; his open letter to his 6-year-old daughter is heartbreaking: "Don't be angry with me if I am not there . . . when you need me." Even in the slowest stretches, he commands attention: the inspirational "prayer-poems" of preacher Howard Thurman must not have looked so bland from where Ashe was sitting. But we're less apt to remember what Ashe thought than how he thought. "Aside from AIDS and heart disease," he says near the end, "I have no problems." This isn't a brave wisecrack as he knew, he wasn't a funny man-but the considered opinion of a superbly objective and balanced mind. It's hard to accept that this is the last we'll hear from him.

Advantage, Mr. Ashe | News