The lead story in the sports section of today’s New York Times reminds me of the time I played tennis against Wimbledon singles champion Arthur Ashe. Sort of.
Just like I once sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Kind of.
Today’s Times article reports on how Richmond, Va., the Confederacy’s Civil War capital, has renamed one of its main streets “Arthur Ashe Boulevard” to honor its native son, the only black to win a Wimbledon singles title, not to mention the Australian and U.S. opens.
Almost startingly symbolic is that where Arthur Ashe Boulevard intersects with Richmond’s Monument Avenue stands a tall memorial, erected 100 years ago, depicting, on horseback, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
My intersection with Ashe isn’t quite so dramatic.
The year was 1977, just two years after Ashe won his Wimbledon title. There was a charity tennis exhibition at Illinois State University, pitting Ashe against Marty Riessen. He had teamed with Ashe six years earlier to win the French Open doubles title.
I worked at WJBC Radio where we were involved in just about any significant charity event in the area. So, to draw attention to the happening, we staged one of our “prediction contests”. This time listeners would call our “automatic recorder” (boy, does that date me?) and predict who would win a “speed-serving” contest between Ashe and me.
We would each serve three balls with a radar gun clocking them. Everyone, of course, predicted Ashe would win. The question was by how much.
I was pretty proud that one of my in-bounds serves clocked in at 75 mph. Ashe’s fastest was 110.
“I could have done better,” he told me as we walked off the court, “but my shoulder’s kind of sore.”
So was mine. I had been practicing all week.
About two years later Ashe is thought to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during heart bypass surgery. He publicly announced his illness in 1992, worked to educate the world about HIV and AIDS, and died in 1993. He was 49.
Riessen, by the way, won the exhibition match, 7-6, 6-3. Probably because I wore out Ashe in the between-sets “speed serving” contest.
And about my singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?
I was once in the audience at Salt Lake City’s Temple Square for a concert by the 360-voice choir. At the end, it invited the audience to sing along in the choir’s rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
I was in full voice. I had been practicing all week.