A well-informed doorstop biography of Arthur Ashe (1943-1993).
Arsenault (Southern History/Univ. of South Florida, St. Petersburg; The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America, 2009, etc.) uses his vast knowledge of civil rights history to properly situate the pioneering black tennis star within American and world history. Just short of 50, Ashe died from complications related to AIDS, “a disease he acquired from a blood transfusion administered during recovery from heart surgery in 1983.” During his relatively short life, Ashe not only integrated big-time men’s tennis; he also served as a scholar of black history, a civil rights activist, an ethicist, and a diplomat without a portfolio. In the early stages of the massively detailed chronology, the author’s subject can seemingly do no wrong, but as the narrative progresses, Ashe begins to demonstrate his flaws, making decisions that prove unpopular or even counterproductive. One of the thorniest issues involved whether tennis professionals—especially those considered nonwhite—should boycott matches in apartheid-ridden South Africa. Ashe believed that an eternal boycott bordered on a simplistic nonsolution to racism, so he repeatedly sought a visa from the apartheid government. Arsenault chronicles Ashe’s childhood rise from the segregated tennis courts of Richmond, Virginia, to less-discriminatory amateur play in other locales. Despite Ashe’s extremely slight build as a child, he regularly defeated older, stronger players. The author cracks the puzzle of why Ashe became obsessive about starring in a sport usually limited to white country-club players. In fact, rarely has a biographer unearthed so much detail about a subject’s life during childhood and adolescence. One of the most fascinating pieces of the Ashe saga becomes clear as Arsenault narrates the story of how journalist John McPhee focused on the battle between Ashe and a white tennis star for a book that became the classic Levels of the Game (1968).
Readers uninterested in tennis will find the detailed match coverage tedious, but Arsenault skillfully guides readers to match point in a book that will be a go-to resource.