Remembering Arthur Ashe: 40 Years On...
On Saturday, 5 July 1975, Arthur Ashe recorded his greatest triumph on a tennis court. With exclusive insight from Ashe's closest friends, James Buddell of ATPWorldTour.com recounts how the American lifted the Wimbledon trophy — one of the most significant wins in the sport’s history.
On the walls of Le Negresco hangs a portrait of Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud; there’s a chandelier designed by Gustav Eiffel; glass work by Baccarrat, one of two commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II, in the Grand Salon that features a glass ceiling. Here, in the palatial art-encrusted surrounds of one of Europe’s finest hotels, owned by Jean-Baptiste Mesnage, on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, Arthur Ashe checks in to a hotel, exclusive to the rich, famous, and their pets. He’s just shared a 311-mile drive from Bologna, via Genoa and Ventimiglia, with Fred McNair and Dickie Dell, during a week off from the busy WCT (World Championship Tennis) circuit.
It’s February 1975 and Ashe, days earlier, has just lost to Bjorn Borg 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 in the final of the WCT Bologna tournament. Their stay, in rooms overlooking the Mediterranean, is temporary. The next stop beckons: Barcelona. That night Ashe, McNair and Dell arrange to head to the Nice Lawn Tennis Club in the morning, for a hit. Afterwards, showered, changed and packed up, they head to the Nice train station, where they pick up an International Herald Tribune newspaper to read up on politics and sport. “We spotted one report,” recalls McNair. “It said that actor Richard Burton, who would re-marry Elizabeth Taylor later in the year, had been seen with Suzy Hunt, the model, newly married to Formula One racing driver James Hunt, on the French Riviera.”
Returning to Le Negresco, they pass through the marble-floored 50-metre entrance hall, en route to the lifts wide enough to carry beds, for their suitcases ready for check out. Ashe, McNair and Dell pass by a glamourous couple, who have entered. Taking up the story, 40 years on, McNair recalls, “The lady was wearing a red fox fur coat, with a white poodle dog under her right arm. The man was walking with another white poodle.” Seconds pass.
“We all turned around, and took an appropriate pause. It was Burton and Hunt…
“After introductions, Burton asks, ‘What brings you here?’
‘We’re heading on to an event in Spain,’ explains Ashe.
‘Have you played that impish young American?’
‘You mean, [Jimmy] Connors? Yes, yes, recently. It wasn’t a very good result.’”
On 25 November 1974, Connors had retained the South African Open title with a 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Ashe in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium. It was his 17th crown of an extraordinary season. He’d lost just two of 11 sets to Ashe in their three matches to date.
“‘I tell you what,’ says Burton. ‘Next time you play, you will beat him. If you do, I’ll wager you £100.
‘It will be the best £100 that I have lost.’”
Burton’s words stick.
Over the course of the next three months, Ashe re-dedicates himself to practice. Getting super fit, he picks up five WCT titles, beating 18-year-old Borg on three occasions, including at the Dallas WCT Finals, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-0.
With one of his goals for 1975 out the way, Ashe sets his sights on another.
Ashe checks into room 234 at the Westbury Hotel, in the first week of June, more than two weeks before the start of The Championships at Wimbledon. McNair, who has travelled with Ashe for the past five months, is staying directly below in room 134, a walk up a staircase from the understated hotel lobby. A 50-room enterprise, the five-star American hotel in Bond Street is used by clients of Donald Dell, Frank Craighill, Lee Fentress and Ray Benton, a sports management firm, later called ProServ. It’s not the official player hotel, but an occasional meeting point for the two-year-old Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
Twelve months ago, on the night of Sunday, 23 June 1974, Ashe had been elected president of the ATP, after Cliff Drysdale stepped down. But, at a time of enormous political struggle, it was also the day that World TeamTennis, together with the reigning Australian Open champions Jimmy Connors and Evonne Goolagong, announced their decision to sue the French and Italian championships for $10 million for banning WTT players. They were also suing Jack Kramer, the executive director of the ATP; Dell, its General Counsel, and the Grand Prix circuit sponsor, Commercial Union Assurance Company, for conspiring with the national associations to bar WTT players from tournaments. Thirty one of the now 145-strong ATP are involved in WTT. Effectively, every player is being sued. Connors was not an ATP member. It’s quite the baptism by fire for Ashe, who would soon be responsible for writing the code of conduct.
During the first week of their stay in 1975, Ashe, McNair and Sherwood Stewart travel by train to Beckenham, for their first tournament matches on grass in England. At night, they return together in order to dine at the Playboy Club in Mayfair, a 15-minute walk from their hotel and “seemingly the only restaurant open in London after 9:30 p.m.” admits McNair. Ashe goes on to capture the Kent Championships title, beating Roscoe Tanner 7-5, 6-4 in the final. Some of the WCT members head to Nottingham, a two-and-a-hour drive north of London, the following week. Despite losing to Tony Roche 6-3, 6-4 in the quarter-finals, Ashe’s confidence remains high on his return to the Westbury Hotel.
But his mood will quickly change.
Two days before the start of Connors’ title defence at 1975 Wimbledon, the back pages of London’s Saturday editions headline: CONNORS SUES ASHE.
Connors’ manager, Bill Riordan, has filed two lawsuits in Indianapolis, claiming damages of $5 million for libellous comments against them in letters written by Ashe, and an article by Bob Briner, the ATP secretary. The crux is that Ashe has criticised Connors as “seemingly unpatriotic” for playing lucrative ‘challenge’ matches, rather than joining the U.S. Davis Cup team. Briner had called Riordan, a “nihilist”. The news breaks as Connors begins a practice at The Queen’s Club. Richard Evans, the European Director of the ATP, is quoted by AP, saying, “Personally, I’m getting very tired of these shabby tactics of throwing out law suits just before Wimbledon.”
Incredibly, Ashe and Connors will meet in 14 days’ time, for the sport’s greatest prize.
Connors is considered invincible in the locker room. In 1974, he has compiled a 99-4 record and won three major championships. “Using his Wilson T2000 like a rapier, he had cut the 39-year-old Ken Rosewall to pieces in the Wimbledon final and had then beaten him even more severely in the US Open final, which was being played on grass for the last time,” remembers John Barrett, the former player and broadcaster. “Connors seemed to be invincible on fast grass.”
The top seed has not dropped a set en route to the 1975 Wimbledon final. “He had simply annihilated Roscoe Tanner in the semi-finals,” recalls Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford, of the 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 victory.
By contrast, sixth seed Ashe – using a Head Arthur Ashe Comp 2 racquet – has come through a four-set quarter-final against Borg, who picked up a groin injury, and a 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 8-9, 6-4 last four epic over left-hander Tony Roche, when tie-breaks were played at eight games all. On Saturday, he’ll contest his seventh major championship final – his first since the 1972 US Open, when he lost to Ilie Nastase in five sets.
Connors is an 11/2 favourite at the London bookmakers' going into his second Wimbledon final; an overwhelming favourite. Ashe is expected to be swallowed up. “On the eve of the final, I remember discussing Arthur’s prospects with Donald Dell as we stood on the steps of the competitors’ restaurant,” recalls Barrett. “We agreed that he could not expect to outhit Jimmy, who thrived on pace.”
Few know that Connors is nursing an injury, the result of slipping and hyper-extending a knee during his first-round win over John Lloyd. It has required secret daily visits to a Chelsea Football Club physiotherapist. Doctors are suggesting he rest. No chance!