DAYS OF GRACE By Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad, Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pp., $24.
IT is a sports image of the 1970s: Arthur Ashe, Centre Court at Wimbledon. His opponent: the brash and talented Jimmy Connors at the peak of his career. Against the odds, Ashe prevails.
If Ashe had ended his career in June 1975 amid the strawberries and cream of Wimbledon, he would have gone down in history solely as a superb tennis player. But, as it turned out, there was more to Ashe than tennis.
There was Ashe the political activist, willing to be arrested outside the South African embassy in order to keep the spotlight on apartheid. There was Ashe the author, writing a multivolume history of African-American athletes, after he found out that no one had made a recent effort. And there was Ashe the Davis Cup captain, elegantly representing his country when John McEnroe and others were national embarrassments on the tennis court.
There was still more to Ashe, whose memoir, "Days of Grace," has been published to coincide with the Wimbledon tournament. Ashe, who died this year of what was diagnosed as AIDS, paints a fascinating self-portrait of a man who would not let any barrier diminish his life.
He had overcome racism starting when he was a youth, when he was not allowed to compete against white players. He had faced awesome physical challenges, including two open-heart surgical operations. And now he was facing a fatal illness
His sickness only reinforced Ashe's beliefs. As he explains, "I had lost many matches on the tennis court, but I had seldom quit." From his experience as an athlete, he knew that "in times of danger I had to respond with confidence, authority, and calm."
That he does. Ashe does not wallow in self-pity even though doctors found that he contracted the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion only one week before the government announced it had found a way to screen the nation's blood supply for the virus. Ashe never asks, "Why me?"
Instead, Ashe did what he did best: He traveled around the country promoting AIDS awareness; he set up a foundation to fund international AIDS research and alleviate suffering; he began an association whose goal is to promote academic improvement for African-American athletes. As Ashe recounts in the book, "These are extraordinary conditions, and you have to step up."
At the same time, Ashe found solace in the spiritual. His quest led him to the theologian Howard Thurman, whose poem "The Threads in My Hand" struck a chord within Ashe. The speaker in the poem says he holds many threads linking his life to others. But there is one thread that is special: "One thread is a strange thread - it is my steadying thread.... God's hand holds the other end...."
One of the main threads of Ashe's life was his family, which gave him great joy. As he wrote the memoir, Ashe and his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe were raising their daughter, Camera. At the end of the book is a special chapter Ashe wrote to his daughter.
The chapter is written from the perspective of a loving father who knows he will not watch his daughter grow up, graduate from school, and have boyfriends or children of her own. It is an intensely personal chapter.
Those who read this book will always have the example of Ashe's life to help them get through the tough spots.