Tennis Great Arthur Ashe Turned 18 In Omaha, And My Mom Baked Him A Cake

Tennis Great Arthur Ashe Turned 18 In Omaha, And My Mom Baked Him A Cake

Arthur Ashe and Bill Brown at the Dewey Park Tennis Center

A copy of the above picture, of Arthur Ashe and my brother, Bill Brown, was featured in a frame on the “tennis wall” in my parents’ basement for as long as they lived in the home. It was taken in July, 1961, during a regional tennis tournament that both boys were playing in at the Dewey Park Tennis Center in Omaha, Nebraska. The tournament was covered in the local newspaper, and this photo was taken by one of their photographers. A copy was given to my mother as a keepsake for baking a birthday cake for the budding tennis star. Arthur’s path to that day was not what you would expect for a young man born and raised through his junior year of high school in Richmond, Virginia. But he made a move for his senior year that helped propel his tennis career in ways that weren’t possible in his hometown.

Growing up in Richmond, Arthur lived in the caretaker’s house in a segregated park that included tennis courts. That is where he learned to play tennis, and local tennis players from the Black community noticed he had talent. Sadly, his mother died when he was only seven years old. So his tennis potential was guided by his father, and a local physician named Dr. Walter Johnson, who remained his life long mentor. High school play was segregated, so the Black schools only played other Black schools. In the winter, it was even worse. Black players were not allowed on the indoor courts in the city. So Dr. Johnson encourage his dad to let Arthur move away for his senior year of high school, where he could play on all of the public courts, and have competition to improve his game.

They chose St. Louis, Missouri, and worked with a well known Black teacher and coach named Richard Hudlin. Hudlin had gotten the outdoor courts in the city desegregated in the 1950’s, and he knew the indoor courts would be available too. This was due to the city having a sprawling athletic facility built as part of their National Guard Armory during the Depression. They were the only indoor courts in the city at the time, and a local tennis pro marked the lines on a polished wood surface. This made for a very fast court to play on, so players learned to return serve very quickly. Indoor courts weren’t plentiful in the Midwest in those days, so having access to these courts was a distinct advantage.

Photo by Erick Todd on

St Louis also had many of the best junior players in the country. And the Armory was open to everyone, so segregation wasn’t an issue, and adults and juniors alike would show up and wait for games to develop. Five Wimbledon champions were either from St. Louis or played regularly at the Armory during the 1960’s- the most recognizable name is probably Jimmy Connors. He was younger than Arthur, but their paths would cross when they both played professionally in later years.

The tennis world is divided into regional groups. St. Louis was part of the Missouri Valley Tennis Association, which included Nebraska, and several other states. In the days before big prize money and a change in the rules regarding who could play in Grand Slam tournaments, the regional associations were filled with great competition, and the ability to move on and compete in national tournaments. So Arthur Ashe was in Omaha playing in the Missouri Valley Junior Championships when the picture was taken. It was held at Dewey Park, the lovely public tennis courts where my brothers and I learned to play by taking free lessons sponsored by the city parks department.

Many players tried to get college scholarships in those days prior to turning pro. My brother and Arthur both pursued that route, my brother at Notre Dame and Arthur at UCLA, schools that would not have been affordable for either of them without scholarships. They both became professional tennis players; my brother was ranked in the top 100 players in the world, and Arthur soared even higher. He won three Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon. He broke many barriers, and worked for civil rights and to end apartheid in South Africa. And he played excellent tennis. I can remember watching him on tv, and always thought it was neat we had his birthday picture on the wall.

The picture came into play in future years in two ways. First, my brother has the only other personal copy of the photo, and while they were both still playing in tournaments he took it to the locker room and asked Arthur to sign it. He remembered it was from the tournament in Omaha, and wrote “A long time ago, Arthur”. My brother still has it at his home in California. The second time it came in handy was when one of my daughters came home from school and was pretty upset. Arthur Ashe was mentioned in her social studies textbook and it had a picture of him. She mentioned, to her teacher and the class, that her grandmother knew him, had baked him a birthday cake, and that she had a picture of it in her house. Nobody believed her. This makes sense since the book mentioned he was from Virginia, and St. Louis and Omaha weren’t part of his biography. Since she was pretty upset, I told her we would go to my parents’ house, get the picture, and she could take it to school the next day. We carefully took it off the wall and wrapped it in a towel. I wrote a note to her teacher explaining the whole story, and asked if she could share it with the class. Problem solved.

Off the court, Arthur had health problems, and suffered a heart attack in the late 1970’s and retired from playing. But he didn’t leave the game or his work developing new players, and fighting for equality and social justice. In 1983, he had heart surgery and received a blood transfusion. Sadly, he contracted the AIDS virus from the transfusion. He kept the diagnosis private for several years, but once it became public established endowments to fight the disease. He finished his memoir, Days of Grace, shortly before he died in 1993, at age 49. The main stadium court at the USTA National Tennis Center is named in his honor, not only for his barrier breaking career, but for his integrity and work off the court too. And in 1996, Richmond, Virginia erected a statue in his honor as well. It features Arthur, with a book in one hand and a tennis racquet in the other.

Tennis has changed dramatically since Arthur and my brother were in high school. Gone are the days of a young athlete learning to play on a public court, and developing exclusively through the local and regional tournament programs. Those still exist, but future professional players now have to attend elite tennis academies, and many don’t go to college. There is a lot of money to be made if you are one of the world’s top players, and although it’s always been an international sport, the competition from other countries has grown exponentially. It doesn’t help make a sport accessible when a system like this develops, although tennis organizations have programs designed to develop players from diverse backgrounds and income levels. I hope they succeed.

One final note on the birthday- my mom told me that Arthur was very appreciative of the cake she made and thanked her for doing so. But she noticed that he didn’t eat a piece, and he said it was because he avoided eating sweets to stay in shape to play. No wonder he won so many tournaments!

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