Remembering Arthur Ashe: 40 Years On... (Part 2)
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.
Back at the Westbury Hotel, a brains’ trust is formed. Ashe has already done his homework, but wants reassurance with strategy. “We’d talk about how to play Connors, a long time before that,” recalls Charlie Pasarell. Ashe has watched video tapes of wins for John Newcombe and Raul Ramirez; but he's also secretly spoken Bernie Mitton, who slow-balled Connors in a 7-6, 6-1 semi-final victory on Chichester's grass, a few weeks earlier, on 7 June.
Dennis Ralston, the U.S. Davis Cup captain since 1972, has already left London to attend a coaching clinic in Maui, Hawaii. But he calls Ashe to talk about a game plan. Ashe takes down four pages of notes on Connors’ six previous matches. “Arthur was a very dangerous kind of player.” says Ralston. “We called him ‘Slasher’ as he would go for winners. He was not necessarily the type of player who would change his game easily.” Marty Riessen is consulted, prior to heading out with other players to Alexander’s on the King’s Road. “We were discussing what Arthur might do to derail Jimmy from his normal dominant game.”
For McNair, it is his final night in London. Following his first practice at Aorangi Park, he’d booked a non-stop flight from London to Dallas. There had been no way in knowing then, that Ashe would reach the final.
“On the night before the final, we went to a Hawaiian-themed restaurant, Trader Vic’s, part of the Hilton chain, where there were drinks with straws, umbrellas and pineapples,” says McNair. “There, we met for dinner.
“Arthur, Charlie Pasarell, Donald Dell and myself.”
Dell remembers asking Arthur, “What do you want to do? He needed to play Connors differently. All of us were talking quietly, each giving three or four thoughts on how to play Connors.”
Arthur, listening intently, ate lean meat and pasta. Nothing heavy.
“I said nothing,” says McNair, who was 24 years old, in his first WCT season. “I recall saying he’d need to chip the ball soft and low on Connors’ forehand, as the grass was soft,” says Dell.
“Arthur listened to us, but he pretty much had a plan,” recalls Pasarell. “I told him, ‘Bully him off the court with the slice first. You got to pull Jimmy off the court, then drop the ball short to his forehand. That should be your standard play. Jimmy likes pace, what you got to do is give him as little pace as possible. Then wait and when you have the opening hit it.’ Arthur had a terrific backhand. Jimmy had trouble with his T-2000 racquets hitting a short forehand. He could not hit enough topspin to keep the ball in court.”
Ashe was in good company for the scouting of Connors. Pasarell had been his roommate at UCLA, while Dell was Davis Cup captain in 1968-69, before agreeing to work with Ashe, on the strength of a handshake in 1970. McNair and Ashe had been inseparable since February, when McNair had replaced Tanner in the WCT Green Group.
McNair remembers, “I was quite surprised when Arthur said, ‘Hey Fred, what do you think?’ I nearly choked on my food. I was a rookie.
“I said I only disagreed with one part. I felt, in the deuce court, Arthur had the best out wide serve to a righty in the history of the game. It opened up the court, at a time when the ball stayed low and the courts were faster. I was a believer in Arthur opening up the court, as Connors could only block or slice his backhand. Donald and Dennis [via his earlier telephone call] had said that Arthur ought to hit it up the middle and come in. You see, when you had Connors on the run, he was in trouble. When he had his feet in the court, he could hit the ball anywhere.
“I said, ‘Arthur, you know what’s best. You have to trust your own game and the advice you have been given. Arthur, in my opinion, you have to use your strength. Your wide serve to the backhand on the deuce court is the best in the world.’
“Then I shut up.”
Dell adds, “The battle plan was decided.
“Arthur would lob high to the backhand side. He would come in to attack on the forehand side. He would hit the ball deep and go down the line on his forehand, slice in the deuce court wide to Connors’ backhand and Arthur would come in to serve well.”
Together, they had polished up Ashe’s game. The conversation continues as they set off for the Playboy Club, where Ashe would take a chip and place it on red on the blackjack table or roulette wheel. “He’d like to do seven bets in a row, but he only ever needed three to win,” says McNair. “It always paid for his nights in a hotel. He had no interest in gambling, more it was his routine in London.”
Ashe and McNair would later leave the others, to walk back to the hotel around 10:30 p.m.
As they arrived in the lobby, McNair recalls, “I said I would phone him Tuesday night, when he landed back in New York. I knew that I had to pack and leave, so I would not see the final. I then remember giving a tip to the old night concierge, James.
“’Good night.’ And I hugged Arthur.
“You’re going to do this. I’ll call you on Tuesday, when you’re back in New York.’
“I walked up the stairs to the first floor. Arthur took the elevator.”
Ashe and McNair have been practically inseparable for five months. Pasarell will also take a flight home.
Years later, in his autobiography, Days of Grace (published in 1993), Ashe would write, “I went to bed and slept soundly. That match was the biggest of my life. It was also one that just about everybody was sure I would lose, because Connors was then the finest tennis player in the world, virtually invincible. In fact, the match was supposed to be a slaughter, and I was to be the sacrificial lamb. When it was time to go to sleep, I shrugged off the nervousness and the worrying, as I usually do, and slept peacefully – as peacefully as that proverbial lamb.”
The next morning, Saturday, 5 July, Dell is expecting to have breakfast with Ashe. “But he wasn’t in the lobby,” recalls Dell. “As I needed to head out, I picked up one of the hotel’s envelopes. On the back, I wrote down the three or four things we had discussed the night before. I put it in his mail box, so he’d pick it up before driving out to the club.”
Dell and his wife, Carole, then accompanied Riessen out to Wimbledon. “They wanted to stop at the church, which we did, so they could ask for a little more help for Arthur,” says Riessen, having checked his 1975 diary.
George Armstrong, who has worked the lines at Wimbledon since 1952, has been selected as the chair umpire for the Connors-Ashe final. He is already playing a round of golf with his son, Gerry, at the nearby Wimbledon Park course. It’s become their 7 a.m. daily morning routine during The Championships, following breakfast. Gerry, now an ATP Supervisor, who recently retired after a 41-year career as a chair umpire, remembers, “He’d been disappointed he had not been selected to umpire the Connors and Rosewall final, the year before, because Rosewall was one of his favourites. But he was full of pride to have been selected.”
Bob Twynam, born less than a mile from Centre Court and in his final year as Wimbledon’s Groundsman, is pottering around his cottage, adjacent to Court No. 6. He’ll soon set out to cut the grass of the sport’s cathedral to 4.76 millimetres* in height. He’s tended the grass for 37 years, the boss since 1967. After The Championships, Jack Yardley, his assistant for the past 10 summers, will take on the head role. The grass has a straw-like quality now after a fortnight of good weather. Every area of the court is worn. [*Editor’s note: In 2015, the Wimbledon grass will be cut to eight millimetres in height.]
Ashe will later hit with Australian lefty Ray Ruffels right up until the minutes before the biggest match of his life. At one point Ruffels collects balls at the net and asks Ashe, “I can’t understand this, Artie. You’re always lobbing today. But everybody knows you never use the lob.” Connors will head to a far flung court to train with Ilie Nastase, watched by dozens of spectators. There isn’t a breath of air.