Tennis: Books for Christmas - Ashe's grace in face of Aids and racism: John Roberts looks at the leading tomes to arrive from a court of kings and queens

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The Independent Online
DAYS of Grace (Heinemann, pounds 15.99) is the last testimony of Arthur Ashe, who died, aged 49, in February. It is a profound work, as one would expect from an athlete who excelled not only at his chosen sport but in the world at large.

Ashe, the only black to win the men's singles championship at Wimbledon, was a person of manifold talents and diverse interests. This is reflected in his book, which was written in collaboration with Arnold Rampersad, a professor of literature at Princeton University.

The major challenges in Ashe's life - racism, heart disease and Aids contracted from a blood transfusion - are addressed in a manner which does not allow emotion to overwhelm important practical and philosophical analyses. How Ashe faced up to himself and his problems, shunning self-pity and working for the good of others, is a lesson in humanity.

Tennis is only part of the story, which is principally concerned with the events following Ashe's retirement as a tour player after a quadruple coronary bypass operation in 1979. Fascinating passages, however, chronicle Ashe's stormy term as the United States Davis Cup captain from 1980 to 1985, caught in the hurricane of John McEnroe's tantrums and Jimmy Connors's truculence.

'Looking back,' Ashe writes, 'I think I am starting to understand exactly what McEnroe and his fiery personality may have meant to me . . . Now I wonder whether I had not always been aware, at some level, that John was expressing my own rage, my own anger, for me, as I never could express it; and I perhaps was even grateful to him for doing so, although his behaviour was, on another level, totally unacceptable.'

Connors, a reluctant Davis Cup player, filed a libel suit in 1975 after Ashe called him 'seemingly unpatriotic'. The action was dropped after Ashe defeated Connors in the Wimbledon final that year. As a captain, Ashe was disappointed by Connors' attitude.

'He seemed uncomfortable, even out of place, on the team. He was a great player, with a wide following among the fans. In my opinion, however, he was somewhat envious of McEnroe and hated the fact that John was the centre of so much fuss and commotion . . . I don't mean to deny Connors his rightful place in tennis history. Only Billie Jean King, with her mixture of dedicated feminism, general gifts of leadership, and athletic brilliance, has been more important among all tennis players since World War II.'

So few athletes accomplish anything beyond their sport, Ashe observes, that King's work is extraordinary. Similar sentiments are expressed in relation to Arthur Robert Ashe. The serenity of this remarkable man issues from every page.

While ill health forced Ashe's retirement as a player when he was approaching 40, Bjorn Borg voluntarily walked away from the game at 26, rich and no longer prepared to submit to the hours of practice required if he was to regain the No 1 position from McEnroe. The Swede's life since those phenomenal years of five consecutive Wimbledon singles titles and six triumphs at the French Open has been more turbulent than anything he experienced on the court.

We are reminded of this in Bjorn Borg, Winner Loses All, by Lars Skarke (Blake, pounds 14.99). Skarke, a 43- year-compatriot, first met Borg at the beginning of the 1980s; the beginning of the end in tennis terms. He is Borg's former business partner and former friend. The business, the Bjorn Borg Design Group, failed; the friendship likewise. And it shows.

'Bjorn still has his fortune, whereas I and others have been ruined,' Skarke writes in an epilogue to tales of 'Bacchanalian orgies'. The book, which opens with an account of the tremors caused by Borg's alleged attempted suicide in 1989, provides an insight into the disparity between public image and private reality. 'The Bjorn on the tennis courts was a million light years away from the Bjorn that I knew,' the author states. For this we are truly thankful.

Ladies of the Court, by Michael Mewshaw (Little, Brown, pounds 15.00) is another fascinating exercise in lid- lifting. Mewshaw spent a year following the women's tour, investigating some of the less savoury aspects of the business. The abuse of young players, psychologically and sexually, for example, is a subject which requires serious examination.

Though Mewshaw's case studies are weakened by being non-attributable, the smoke is thick enough for the governing bodies to set up a fire watch.

'When I start losing to the Brad Gilberts of this world,' John McEnroe mused at the Masters in 1986, 'I've got to reconsider what I'm doing even playing this game.' Losing to Gilbert persuaded the turbulent genius to take a seven-month sabbatical, and he was never quite the same again.

McEnroe is by no means the only big name to be frustrated by Gilbert, a so-called journeyman who has made a fortune and maintained a position in or around the world's top 20 without the benefit of a punishing serve.

Boris Becker was another victim, losing to the Californian 6-1 in the fifth set of their fourth-round match at the 1987 United States Open. Gilbert's approach to game plans and mind games are revealed in the absorbing Winning Ugly (Carol Publishing, New York, pounds 17.95), written with Steve Jamison, which can be obtained from Sportspages, of London and Manchester.

Available from the same outlets is Tough Draw (Henry Holt & Co, New York, pounds 23.50) by Eliot Berry, a novelist and former leading junior player, who was briefly a place- kicker in American football for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons.

Although Berry is tiresomely indulgent in his obsession with the nature of the American dream, his portraits of key matches in the 1990 and 1991 seasons are often appealing and entertaining.

In analysing narrow victories, which in his view often turn on a single point, Berry displays shrewd powers of observation and his sketches of the leading players are mostly engaging and sympathetic; though Ivan Lendl, described as looking like a 'concentration camp guard', might not agree. Included are a number of off-beat interviews with Pancho Gonzales, Ion Tiriac and the parents of tour players, plus intriguing memoirs of visits to the home towns of Stefan Edberg and Becker.

As the sport begins to examine how best to increase its popularity, the updated Open Tennis by Richard Evans (Bloomsbury, pounds 18.99) presents a comprehensive study of the professional game through its first 25 years.

The Official Wimbledon Annual by John Parsons (Chapmans, pounds 16.99), chronicles the dramas of a rare fine fortnight in words and colour photography.

There is trivia for rain delays in the pocket-size Tennis] Great Moments and Dubious Achievements by John S Snyder (Hi Marketing, London, pounds 3.99). Frank Kovacs, for example, was the only finalist at the United States championships to chew on tennis balls during a match.