After Arthur Ashe’s early death from AIDS in 1993, his friends summed him up best. Frank Deford wrote, “It wasn’t as if Arthur was the best player ever; why, he wasn’t even the best of his time. Rather, he was just a very good tennis player who had come to be recognized as an altogether exceptional human being.” And at Ashe’s memorial service, David Dinkins got right to the point: “Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us.”
This is precisely the impression readers will take away from Raymond Arsenault’s “Arthur Ashe: A Life,” which is less a biography of a tennis player than a biography of a man who happened to play tennis. Ashe himself would have had it no other way. He wrote once, “I don’t want to be remembered mainly because I won Wimbledon.” When he helped envision the statue that Paul DiPasquale would make of him in his hometown of Richmond, Va., Ashe requested that children and books be featured, adding only as an afterthought, “Oh, and I suppose a tennis racquet should be in there somewhere.”
Arsenault’s Ashe is too large a character to be contained in a mere sport. Tennis, for Ashe, was a means to a rich, engaged life of culture, politics and social reform. A small sampling of his pursuits would include voracious reading; writing four memoirs and a three-volume history of black athletics; coaching the U.S. Davis Cup team; contributing regular op-eds to the Washington Post and New York Times; serving as president of the Association of Tennis Professionals; mentoring young black tennis players; discovering Yannick Noah (who would go on to become only the second player of black African descent, after Ashe, to win a Grand Slam tournament) as a boy in Cameroon; campaigning tirelessly to end apartheid in South Africa; promoting AIDS research; and myriad others.
But Ashe remains best known as the Jackie Robinson of tennis. From growing up in the Jim Crow South to facing discrimination well into his professional career, Ashe was always aware of his status as a trailblazer in the white world of tennis, an awareness that helped inform the dignity with which he famously carried himself as a player and as an outspoken black activist and public intellectual. Arsenault renders this aspect of the story exquisitely, moving smoothly between tennis and politics and Ashe’s ongoing efforts to determine and articulate his positions with respect to the important issues of his time.
Of course, tennis enabled so much of what Ashe was able to do with the rest of his life. And if there’s one shortcoming to the book it’s a lack of feel for Ashe’s game. Arsenault spends little time on Ashe’s style of play or giving a sense of how Ashe got to be as good as he did. It’s hard to know, for example, when, among his other commitments, he found time to practice. But readers who want to know what it was like to watch Ashe play can always go back to John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game,” where his on-court elegance gets its due.
Arsenault’s readers will find instead a rare perspective on a professional athlete in which the sport does not make the man. Naturally, Ashe himself is exemplary on the role sport should play in a life: “I hope that everyone at the end of their playing career, at whatever level, can say the one thing I can say: ‘It was fun.’ That’s what means the most.”
Scott F. Parker is the author of “A Way Home: Oregon Essays.” He lives in Montana.
Arthur Ashe: A Life
By: Raymond Arsenault.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 767 pages, $37.50.