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Inspiration From Tennis Greats

Taking Inspiration From Tennis Greats

The New York Times

August 24, 2002

Taking Inspiration From Tennis Greats


Bianca, my 13-year-old daughter, is not a tennis player. Yet Serena and Venus Williams — the sisters ranked as the No. 1 and No. 2 women tennis players in the world, respectively, going into next week's United States Open — have had a powerful influence on her. Largely because of their example, during the past year Bianca went from being an average athlete to being state champion in the 200-meter hurdles and attaining a top-three state ranking in her age group in three other track and field events.

What inspires Bianca about the Williams sisters are the same qualities that made Arthur Ashe a powerful role model for me more than 25 years ago. I first heard of Ashe when I was trapped in Alexandra, a notorious Johannesburg ghetto. Crippled by self-doubt, I was desperately searching for a way to overcome the poverty and racial oppression around me.

I became interested in tennis after I shocked Mrs. Smith, the white woman my grandmother worked for as a gardener, by admitting that I hadn't any idea what she meant by the word "gentleman." She explained that Arthur Ashe was one. I'd never heard of him, but Mrs. Smith spoke about him with such admiration, having apparently seen him play at Wimbledon, that I was determined to emulate this black Hercules who'd slain the Hydra of racism to achieve his full potential.

Later that day, as a bonus for a job well done (polishing the silver and the "master's" shoes), Mrs. Smith gave me a warped wooden tennis racket. Thrilled, I took it back to the ghetto and began pummeling a brick wall in the hope of someday becoming another Ashe. Then, in 1973, Ashe was finally granted a visa to set foot in South Africa, after having been persona non grata because of his criticism of apartheid. I scrounged up the money to see him play in a tournament he'd demanded be integrated.

Ashe was the first free black man I'd ever set my eyes upon. I'd never before seen a black person who was unafraid to look white people in the eye and tell them exactly what he thought. For me, he was liberated black manhood personified, and I decided to master this aristocratic white man's game called tennis so that someday I would be as free as Arthur Ashe. (I wound up being good enough to get a tennis scholarship to an American college.)

To my daughter, the Williams sisters are liberated black womanhood personified. She admires their self-confidence, pride, quick-wittedness, devotion to faith and family, love of learning and refusal to eschew racial controversy even if it roils white sensibilities. Their remarkable journey from the inner city courts of Compton, Calif., to the pinnacle of the tennis world has taught her the importance of using obstacles as motivation. Their mental toughness on the court has taught her that self-doubt can be a more formidable antagonist than one's opponent.

They have even influenced her attitude about what constitutes beauty. Bianca used to believe that young women had to starve themselves into wraiths to be attractive. Now the athletic bodies of Venus and Serena are her ideals of beauty.

When Arthur Ashe died in 1993, I wept uncontrollably, in part because I feared that no other black athlete of his caliber would come along to inspire young black people to be proud of their color, to believe in themselves and to refuse to allow racism to define their humanity and aspirations. Judging from their effect on my daughter, Venus and Serena are doing just that.

Mark Mathabane is the author of "Kaffir Boy.''

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