Arthur Ashe: My Mentor and Friend

Fifty years ago, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr., was the first African-American man to win the U.S. Open and a Grand Slam tournament. Today he is still the only Black man to have won the U.S. Open. And though Ashe was not the first athlete of stature with a correspondingly big social and moral conscience who was willing to step outside of his comfort zone and call foul on the evils of society, his voice was one of the most eloquent and his unrelenting commitment to social change made him one of our most effective citizens.

Arthur’s story never grows old and his footprints on our national march toward justice are only made more indelible with the passage of time.

I met Arthur 50 years ago when his trajectory toward fame was just being plotted. In a sense our paths crossed because of our Richmond, Va., heritage and the close-knit nature of our community.

Arthur’s mother and my grandmother worked at the same place and knew each other socially. Fate put my house across the street from Battery Park, which is now the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center.

Arthur’s father, Arthur Ashe Sr., was the caretaker of the park and knew all of the kids by name and family. I was no exception, and being a tennis-mad, skinny kid, whose every waking hour was spent on the court, Mr. Ashe must have seen some similarities between me and his son.

To Arthur Jr. the wrongs of society were a call to action. Just like sacrifice made him a champion on the court, good citizenship demanded he put himself on the front lines of the struggle. That selflessness would later define him.

The call to activism is never delivered by a handwritten note. In Arthur’s case, it was instead a direct appeal to his humanity and his gift of empathy.

Like most Americans and millions of fans around the world, I have a deep respect for all that Arthur has done for our sport. But what I admire and what I carry with me about Arthur is his non-negotiable belief in equality and diversity, his decency and his commitment to creating a better tomorrow.

Arthur was smart, and he had a natural curiosity about everything. He was inquisitive and while others didn’t see it as their place to speak out or act up, Arthur saw it as his civic duty, an ex post facto IOU written to our ancestors.

This looked like a thankless task at the time. It was, after all, the 1960s. And we were in the capital of the old confederacy.

Arthur knew that the world was watching, and he used the megaphone of fame to lend his voice to the cause of civil rights and justice to heal America. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted in his Letter From Birmingham Jail: “injustice must ... be exposed, with all the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Arthur returned to Richmond after climbing to tennis’ mountaintop, winning the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He always found time to mentor kids and to promote education and public health. Arthur helped turn boys into men, and girls into women, some of whom became leaders. Most became better citizens.

I got into the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which was one of the most prestigious tennis academies in the world at the time because of Arthur. I practiced with the U.S. Davis Cup team on his recommendation when he was the U.S. Davis Cup team captain. I was fortunate enough in my time with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to become the director of men’s tennis as well as the men’s tennis coach for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Arthur spoke to the USTA on my behalf when I got my first job at the USTA in 1986.

In my own playing career my benchmark was always Arthur. I followed him in playing at the U.S. Open and at Wimbledon because his belief in me made me believe in myself. Arthur was my mentor. He was my inspiration. He was my friend.

— Rodney Harmon is the head of women’s tennis at Georgia Tech.

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