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Arthur Ashe

Early Lessons

A student at Virginia Union University and part-time tennis teacher at Brook Field, Ronald Charity, soon recognized Ashe's natural talent. Charity began to coach Ashe, and encouraged him to enter his first tournament, at the Brook Field courts, which he lost to a boy three years his elder. But Ashe was not at all discouraged. By the time he was ten, Ashe was competing against—and defeating—older, stronger boys, but the most important lesson he learned from Charity wasn't about shot-making; it was about sportsmanship. Charity had taught the young phenomenon not to gloat, as did his next instructor, Dr. Walter Johnson.

Johnson was a physician in Lynchburg, Virginia, who in his spare time coached African-American tennis players during summers at his home. His protégé, Althea Gibson, was the first to break the color barrier of the American Lawn Tennis league in 1956, after which she won the French and Italian titles, and numerous wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. From the summer of 1953 to the summer of 1960, Ashe worked with Dr. Johnson, who not only fine-tuned Ashe's game but also his conduct, the etiquette and composure that would become an Ashe hallmark. It was still prior to the civil-rights movement in America, and whenever black players were allowed to compete against whites, they were too aware that they had to be on their best behavior on the court. Ashe, like Johnson's other students, was schooled in the courteous acceptance of defeat and the humble pride of victory.

From 1955 to 1963, Ashe won titles in American Tennis Association (ATA) competitions. (The ATA was the African-American equivalent of the United States Lawn Tennis Association.) In 1960 and 1961, Ashe took the U.S. Junior Indoor singles title, which got him noticed by a Missouri coach, Richard Hudlin, a friend of Johnson's. It soon became apparent that if Ashe was to pursue tennis, he'd have to leave Richmond, a raciallysegregated city that precluded Ashe from playing whites. With winter approaching and the city's indoor courts closed to blacks, Ashe took Hudlin up on his suggestion that he spend his senior year in St. Louis. Once there, Ashe learned to leave his solid baseline game and became one of the original serve-and-volley players. He graduated from Sumner High School with the highest grade point average. But what gave him the greatest happiness was the realization of Dr. Johnson's dream that an African-American player would oppose a white player in a major United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA; now the USTA) competition. Though it had denied him access to competition several times on account of his race, the USLTA listed Ashe as the fifth-ranked junior player in the country and a Junior Davis Cup team member.

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsTennisArthur Ashe Biography - Growing Up, Early Lessons, The Amateur Years, Chronology, Ranked Number One, Center Court