Solve this problem: Your daughter’s playing with a doll, a gift she just received from a friend. The doll is white. 1968: John Carlos gives the black power salute Arthur Ashe wins the first US Open. 1970: Toni Morrison The Bluest Eye the problem of “whiteness” as a standard of beauty Arthur Ashe wins The Australian Open. 1972: Bettye Saar The Liberation of Aunt Jemima 1975 the liberation continues Arthur Ashe outthinks Connors to win Wimbledon “no matter what I do, or where or when I do it, I feel the eyes of others watching me, judging me.” Arthur avoids tennis clubs where he is not allowed, skips tournaments he cannot enter, turning and turning as contemplative as inward as Rembrandt (his favorite artist). In Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,” Ashe sees the “close kinship between admiration and envy” he must feel when contemplating John Carlos or Muhammad Ali—black athletes who could protest in ways Ashe’s personality and patriotism would not allow. Ashe always soft-spoken and behind the scenes: “The problem with you, Arthur, is that you are not arrogant enough” (Jesse Jackson). White racists told Ashe how to live. Black activists told Ashe how to live. Should he take the white doll away from his daughter during a nationally televised benefit for the Arthur Ashe Foundation of AIDS the year before his death? Nelson Mandela in prison reads A Hard Road to Glory, Ashe’s three-volume history of the black athlete. Ashe cannot abide any sacrifice of dignity, any sacrifice of morality, the question always always how can a black person live a life of freedom and dignity. In his thoughtful excursions to South Africa to play tennis, Ashe did as much as anyone to challenge the system of apartheid. When Mandela toured America, he smiled when someone whispered in his ear: “Ah, Arthur is here.”✶
Billie Jean King
Parable of the Three Doors
The first door’s locked. Deadbolts everywhere, a not yet discernible voice inside. I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. I’ve got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic. The second door’s a ceiling. The Houston Astrodome, the stars. Come call it Title IX. King still wakes up nervous, then realizes she won. “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I did not win that match.” An athletic and creative strategist who knew the value of taking risks—her aggressive serve and volley style had won her 11 grand slams–King decided the day of the match to slowball Riggs, run him as much as possible. DON’T DO THAT! THAT’S CRAZY! Riggs jumps over the net, shakes her hand: “I really underestimated you.” The third door is opening, open. The third door is closing, closed. You try to open it. Someone else tries to open it. Before the law stands a doorkeeper. She shakes your hand: “Hi, I’m Billie Jean King.” Who is it speaks next? What do they say? How can we open more doors?
1976 flying spinning sky snow skies freestyle freedom beards hair accidents not Vietnam not draft not WWI nationalism amputees dreams phantom limbs flying spinning sky hospital free time paralysis free time mind wonder if wheelchair wonder if fly and soar not this not that wonder if you can play wheelchair tennis everywhere obstacles every damn curb every damn bathroom hit the road Brad promote dream teach amputees kids vets on the road Brad barnstorming parking lots gyms the two bounce rule the custom wheelchair teach amputees kids vets every able-bodied tennis pro in every town no one pities an athlete competing in grand slam finals I remember the 70s the 80s I felt pity I felt sorry when I looked in a wheelchair’s eyes not sorry never sorry for any opponent who wants to kick your ass in more than 80 countries around the world and at every grand slam two people roll up shake hands at the net.
At dawn I sighed to see my hairs fall;
At dusk I sighed to see my hairs fall . . .
Did Agassi lose his first French Open final because he was worried his wig would fall off? “Image Is Everything.” Vegas, entertainment, the flashy shot. When the going got tough, his beautiful zen-like-deer-in-the-headlight eyes. How to explain those eyes and hands, his return of serve? Childhood’s father boxer creates dragon monster: a souped-up ball machine spitting fast balls, curves. Hit or be hit. Children must defend themselves. Timing can be learned. Slay the father by becoming the father. Tennis as boxing. Ground strokes as body blows. Train. Train. Meditate. Train. Run hills in the heat, bench 300 pounds. Serve wide to the forehand. Kick it out wide to the backhand. The next shot in the opposite corner. Corner to corner. Take out the legs, the head will go. Oldest male player to be #1. Punk. Monk. Bodhissatva.
Now I know why the priest who seeks repose
frees his heart by first shaving his head.
–Bo Zuhyi, “On His Baldness”
Yannick Noah/Amelie Mauresmo
Miscegenation. I first read that word in a Faulkner novel. Métisse (mixed race). I first heard that word in one of Noah’s hit songs. Half man whispered in the women’s locker room. A mere decade later, a muscular body such as Mauresmo’s was accepted by everyone, desired by many. Truth was she played like a male ballet dancer: a Stefan Edberg, a Rudolf Nureyev, a Suzanne Lenglen, the last French woman to win Wimbledon in 1925 before Mauresmo won it in 2006. Only then could Mauresmo jokingly confess: “I don’t want anyone to talk about my nerves anymore,” the nerves that too often wreaked havoc with her beautiful free-flowing all-court game. Maybe she could have learned from Suzanne Lenglen, the ballerina goddess from the flapper 1920s who hit like a man and flouted the conventions, sipping brandy on changeovers to calm her nerves. Maybe a lesson from Yannick Noah, who admitted to toking up before matches. What’s your biggest weapon, Yannick? My hair, my dreadlocks. Noah’s tennis seemed carefree, reggae, creative: a spontaneous all-court game with acrobatic play at the net. When he became the only French citizen to win the French Open in the open era, he sparked one of the biggest parties in France since the French Revolution. Three French (S)heroes head into a bar: Androgyne, flapper, two-spirit, three-spirit, four-spirit, five . . . Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind.
Wiradjuri Cummeragunga Yota Yota Goolagong The Dreaming rock art walkabout Goolagong “a feathery style” ( Chris Evert) not serve and volley but “Serve and Saunter” (Martina Navratilova) Goolagong moved so gracefully distracted opponents would watch Goolagong “our first aborigine to become champion” Goolagong first racquet the side of a fruit crate Goolagong etched in the dirt the number of times she hit the ball Goolagong we should not romanticize the most graceful mover and poetic athlete in tennis history Goolagong history warns us not to romanticize the indigenous the aboriginal Goolagong Quinkamassacres assimilation immigration destruction Goolagong dreaming “white man’s bullets ripping through the flesh of my ancestors” Goolagong means “tall trees near still water” Wiradjuri word “gulagallang” means something like “a big mob” Goolagong walkabout a loss of concentration that’s what the commentators said Goolagong walkabout “a nomadic tradition, a cleansing of the spirit by moving to another place for a time” after many years Goolagong: “I believe the way I played the game reflected a calmness, a serenity of spirit which I now equate with being Aboriginal.”
“If I were teaching a pig, it would have learned by now.” Backhands, forehands, scars . . . The Chinese say: “A strict teacher makes for an excellent student.” In the rigid Chinese sports system, no one asked if she wanted to play tennis. Train and train, internalize the joyless, harsh voice within. A bit older, some success: “If I have no freedom, I am going to quit.” Danfei, flying solo. After winning grand slam championships, she does not thank China. To the youth who adore her, she is Big Sister Na. A personality, a presence, not a communist tool for the greater good. She makes fun of her husband’s snoring, his weight, his luck in finding a wealthy woman like her. In China Daily, the mouth of the Chinese party: Li Na’s “insolence” goes against “social customs and traditions.” As the most marketable athlete in China’s history, more people watched her win the French Open than watched the Super Bowl. Andre Agassi her favorite player: long hair, freedom, earring, rebel. The Chinese middle class booms. Millions more play tennis, the most individual of sports. A rose tattoo’s hidden on Li Na’s chest. Who does not want to rebel?
✶much of the material from the first segment is from Ashe’s Days of Grace
After leaving a career in music (classical guitar) because of a hand injury, David Linebarger earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Davis. Currently a Professor of Humanities at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, his publications include scholarly articles on Wallace Stevens and modern music, poetry in over 25 journals, and two chapbooks: “War Stories” (Pudding House) and “Bed of Light” (Finishing Line Press). A national tournament tennis player in his age group, his current project includes a series of short nonfiction prose works on famous tennis players. You can read some of his recently published work on tennis players and works of art in Cagibi Issue 3.1.