There slouched John McEnroe, the top-ranked tennis player in the world, dolefully reading a newspaper in a corner of the locker room.
There stood Ivan Lendl, the second-best player in the world, only a few feet from me in the cramped quarters. In a few hours, he would be on center court, but now he talked to another player about golf.
I took it all in, a fly on the wall amid tennis royalty. Mats Wilander ambled by. I could hear Jimmy Connors telling his ribald jokes.
Was this really happening? Was 16-year-old me in the locker room at the United States Open of 1983? Even today, I pinch myself when I think of it.
That year, my dad and I made up a doubles team representing the Pacific Northwest in the father and son division of the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge. We had flown to New York, all expenses paid, to compete against amateur tandems from across the country in the popular tournament. Its championship rounds were held at Flushing Meadows, smack in the middle of America’s tennis grand slam.
What a different time that was. In 1983, total prize money for the male and female pros stood at $1 million. Fans and players mingled on the grounds. Entering through the gates, nobody checked your bags.
As part of the Equitable event, teams of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives and siblings played matches on the same courts where the pros played. We had passes that let us into the locker room, right there with the best players in the world.
During the Open’s second week, after playing a match in our little tournament where the big prize was a silver plaque, I showered next to a small clutch of pros in the shower room. There I was — soaping up in the buff — when one of the pros walked in to take his shower. It was France’s Yannick Noah, my favorite player, who had slashed his way to victory at the French Open that summer, becoming the first Black player to win a Grand Slam tournament championship since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.
Noah kindly asked about me in his accented English. I explained that I was a nationally ranked junior, one of the few Black players at that level in the United States, and told him about the Equitable tournament. I asked if he was ready for his next big match that night in the quarterfinals. He said he could not wait.
“I hope you and your father are there,” he added before wishing us luck.
As great and lucky as they were, those rare moments in the locker room were not what sticks with me most about that Open. What sticks out are encounters with two other tennis luminaries. Encounters that changed my life.
One afternoon on the Flushing grounds, I spotted Nick Bollettieri, the former Army paratrooper turned supercoach whose Florida tennis academy produced many of the world’s best young players.
I sidled up to Bollettieri. I asked about his academy, and told him I dreamed of attending one day but that my family, struggling after my parents divorced and dad’s small business faltered, could not afford the extremely steep price. Luckily, one of Bollettieri’s assistant coaches was nearby. The assistant said he had seen me put up a good fight against one of the top seeds at the boys’ 16-and-under nationals in Kalamazoo, Mich. I needed polish, the assistant said, but I had game.
Bollettieri thought for a moment, then he motioned for me to come closer. “Find Arthur,” he instructed, “and ask if he will help.” Bollettieri meant Arthur Ashe, whose Wimbledon win had sparked my tennis ambition. The two had teamed up to help other minority players attend the academy.
If Arthur would fund part of it, Bollettieri said he would also help.
I ended up asking my father to find Ashe and broach Bollettieri’s idea. It seemed too daunting a task for me to pull off. But dad always pushed me, always looked for ways to help me stand on my own two feet. He had taught himself tennis after his college basketball career ended, and pretty much insisted I learn tennis too. Now he told me it was my job, and mine alone, to make the pitch.
So began my search for Arthur Ashe. I was not usually this gutsy, but I waited for him to finish a news conference near center court at the old Louis Armstrong Stadium. When he finished, I tepidly approached.
I can still feel Ashe’s welcoming handshake, still sense his patience as he listened carefully to what I had to say. I remember him promising to see what he could do to help.
The next day, as my father and I played one of our matches on the Flushing grounds, Ashe stopped by to watch a few points.
At first, I was so nervous that I clunked a few easy returns. But when it was time to unleash my one true weapon, a left-handed serve I could blast like a fastball or bend in a spinning arc, I cranked it up.
Ace. Ace. Winner.
My dad and I did not win the tournament, but we won that match. And Ashe knew I was for real.
A few months later, at home in Seattle, I received a phone call. “Hello, Kurt,” said the voice on the other end, “this is Arthur Ashe.”
He had struck a deal with Bollettieri to help pay for my stay at the Florida academy. I went there for the last semester of my senior year in high school. The place swarmed with tennis talent. My first bunkmate? Andre Agassi.
Fate holds a mysterious sway in our lives. If I had not been at the U.S. Open that year, I would not have ended up at Bollettieri’s academy.
If I had not attended the academy, I would not have had the confidence to attend the University of California, Berkeley, a perennial collegiate tennis power and the university that shaped my adult life. At Cal, I played my way from lowly recruit to a full scholarship and became the first African American to captain the men’s tennis team.
Fate has its way with us all.
My brother Jon and I ended up treating dad to a trip to New York for the 2004 U.S. Open, our first time back since the Equitable tournament.
It was there that I noticed he was sick. He struggled for breath and had lost not just a step but also a measure of his mental sharpness. On one sweltering afternoon, he wandered off and got lost.
Not too long after that, my father lay in a hospice. He was dying of amyloidosis, a blood disorder that attacked his brain, lungs and heart.
As he struggled for life, we often held hands. I searched for any trace of his familiar, comforting strength. When he summoned the energy to talk, sports was the cord that once again bound us together.
We spoke of memories. We recalled our shared love for the Seattle Sonics and Roger Federer, and all the beautiful years we spent together playing tennis from the time I was a toddler.
“We’ll always have the Open,” he told me, gripping my hand firmly.
Yes, I assured, we always will.
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