Area tennis enthusiasts who pick up a copy of “Arthur Ashe: A Life” will be pleased to find that author Raymond Arsenault devotes an entire chapter to the nine months when the late tennis star lived in St. Louis. However, readers may be taken aback by some of the author’s and Ashe’s comments about his time here.
As the story has been told over the years of Ashe’s move from his hometown of Richmond, Va. — a move orchestrated by his father and his coach/mentor, Dr. Robert Johnson — St. Louis was thought to have been something of a haven for Ashe where he benefited from less racial discrimination and better opportunities to improve his tennis game.
During the school year of 1960-61, Ashe was a senior at Sumner High School while living with a new mentor, Richard Hudlin, in Richmond Heights. Hudlin, who once had been captain of the tennis team at the University of Chicago, taught at Sumner and was the most prominent figure in St. Louis’ black tennis community.
In a 1982 interview for a story in the Post-Dispatch, Ashe told me that St. Louis was “a sine qua non” in his tennis career, explaining that playing here against the city’s strong contingent of nationally ranked players forced him to expand his skills and adopt a more attacking style of play that eventually served him well in professional tennis.
While Arsenault credits the St. Louisans — among them Larry Miller, Jim Parker and brothers Butch and Cliff Buchholz — who helped Ashe develop his tennis game, he paints a dreary picture of Ashe’s experience here overall.
Ashe, Arsenault writes, found Hudlin to be a domineering taskmaster who put him daily through a grinding boot camp regimen, allowing for no personal freedom. In addition, the author says Ashe was disappointed in St. Louis, which he had hoped, as Arsenault writes, was “located safely beyond the boundaries of the Jim Crow South.” But, according to Arsenault, Ashe later wrote that St. Louis “was de facto virtually as segregated at Richmond.”
Finally, the author quotes Ashe as saying in his writings, “St. Louis was the worst nine months I ever spent.”
Curiously, in his notes at the end of the book, Arsenault writes, “In 1974, Ashe offered a much more positive assessment of his St. Louis experience, writing ‘I had a great year there.’”
Ultimately, the evidence is fairly clear that Ashe came to regard Hudlin with gratitude and perhaps fondness, too. In 1992, just nine months before he died and while in declining health, Ashe elected to fly to St. Louis, leaving his wife and daughter at home in New York, to serve as emcee at Hudlin’s posthumous induction into the St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame.
The segment on St. Louis is certainly but a small fragment in an exhaustive tome of more than 700 pages. Arsenault goes on to document Ashe’s achievements in tennis as well as those outside of the game as a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist and philanthropist, concluding with his death in 1993, at age 49, from complications related to AIDS, which he and his doctors believed he contracted from a blood transfusion.
With three Grand Slam singles titles to his credit and a stellar career as a Davis Cup player and coach, Ashe ranks among America’s most accomplished players. Along with his crusade to see apartheid abolished in South Africa, he put a great amount of time and effort into promoting tennis in the inner city and helping young minority players with both encouragement and funding. Some young male players were burdened with the tag of possibly being “the next Arthur Ashe,” and today Ashe remains the only African-American male to have won at Wimbledon. The same is true for the U.S. Open.
One of those promising young players was Juan Farrow, who followed in Ashe’s footsteps from Virginia and Dr. Johnson to Hudlin and Sumner High. Farrow won the state high school singles championship three times at Sumner and three NCAA Division II singles championships at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and made the U.S. Under 21 Davis Cup team.
But according to Arsenault, Ashe eventually ended his relationship with Farrow after learning that the young player was a chain smoker and, in Ashe’s view, “was too undisciplined to become a champion.” Although Farrow never made it in professional tennis, in 2014 he was inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame, and for many years he’s been a teaching pro in Macon, Ga.
Arsenault is a civil rights historian and the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida. Although Ashe wrote several memoirs during his lifetime, Arsenault says he undertook the eight-year project of writing “Arthur Ashe: A Life” because of “the absence of a full-scale biographical treatment” of Ashe.
“Of all the historical characters I have studied during my long scholarly career,” the author writes, “(Ashe) comes the closest to being an exemplary role model.”
This spring, the side yard of Hudlin’s home at 1221 Laclede Station Road, where he once had a tennis court, was dedicated by the city of Richmond Heights as Ashe-Hudlin Park.
Ron Cobb, a 2016 St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, has written about tennis for more than 40 years, including during a 31-year career at the Post-Dispatch.