John McEnroe, a world-class tennis player, crouched down while reading a newspaper in a hurry in a corner of the locker room.
In a cramped place, just a few feet from me, Ivan Lendl, the second best player in the world, stood. In a few hours he will be on the center court, but now he has talked to other players about golf.
I put a fly on the wall in the middle of the tennis royal family and took everything in. Mats Wilander ambled. I heard Jimmy Connors telling his Ribald joke.
Did this really happen? At the age of 16, was I in the locker room of the 1983 American Open? Even today, when I think about it, I’m pinching myself.
That year, my dad and I created a doubles team representing Pacific Northwest in the dad and son division of the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge. We flew to New York at all costs to compete with amateur tandems throughout the county in popular tournaments. The championship round was held at Flushing Meadows in the midst of an American tennis grand slam.
Since then, the US Open has been special to me and I feel calm in my bone marrow. Without it, I would be another person. And I had no precious memories with my deceased father.
What a different time That is. In 1983, the total prize pool for male and female professionals was $ 1 million. Fans and players were mixed on the premises. No one checked your bag when entering through the gate.
As part of the equitable event, a team of father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife, and siblings played on the same court that the pros played. There was a pass to enter the locker room with the best players in the world.
In the second week of the opening, after playing in a small tournament where the big prize was a silver shield, I took a shower next to a small professional clutch in the shower room. I was there — buffing and soaping — when one of the pros stepped in to take a shower. It was Yannick Noah of France who paved the way for victory at the French Open that summer. Since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975, he became the first black player to win the Grand Slam Tournament Championship.
Noah kindly asked about me in accented English. I explained to him that he was a nationally ranked junior and one of the few black players at that level in the United States and told him about the Equitable Tournament. I asked if he was ready for his next big match that night in the quarterfinals. He said he couldn’t wait.
“I hope you and your dad are there,” he added before wishing us good luck.
As wonderful and lucky as they were, those rare moments in the locker room weren’t the ones that stick to me most about its opening. What stands out is the encounter with two other tennis celebrities. An encounter that changed my life.
One afternoon, at the flushing ground, a former Army paratrooper found Nick Bolterry, who turned into a super coach. The Florida Tennis Academy has produced many of the best young players in the world.
I snuggled up to Boroterry. I asked him about his academy and dreamed of attending one day, but told him that my family couldn’t afford to pay a very high price after his parents divorced and his father’s small business declined. talked. Fortunately, one of Boroterry’s assistant coaches was nearby. The assistant said he saw a good fight with one of the top seeds of boys under the age of 16 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The assistant said he needed to polish, but there was a match.
Boroterry thought a little and then moved closer to me. “Find Arthur,” he instructed. “And ask if he can help.” Boroterry meant Arthur Ashe, whose victory at Wimbledon stimulated my tennis ambitions. The two worked together to help other minority players join the academy.
If Arthur will fund some of them, he said he will also support Boroterry.
I had to ask my dad to find Ash and brooch Boroterry’s ideas. It seemed like a tough job for me to do. But Dad was always pushing me and always looking for a way to help me stand on my feet. He learned tennis himself after his college basketball career, and I insisted on learning tennis too. Now he told me that it was my job to make the pitch and I was the only one.
So I started searching for Arthur Ashe. I wasn’t usually very brave, but I waited for him to finish the press conference near the center court of the old Louis Armstrong Stadium. When he was done, I approached slimy.
I can still feel Ash’s welcome handshake, I still feel his patience when he listens carefully to what I had to say. I remember he promised to see what he could do to help.
The next day, when my dad and I played on the flushing ground, Ash stopped by to see some points.
At first I was so nervous that I got some simple returns. But when I unleashed one of my true weapons, the left-handed serve, I was able to explode like a fastball or bend in a spinning arc, so I cranked it up.
Ace. Ace. winner.
My dad and I didn’t win the tournament, but we won the match. And Ash knew I was real.
A few months later, I got a call at my home in Seattle. “Hello Kurt,” said the other voice, “This is Arthur Ashe.”
He signed a contract with Boroterry to help pay for my stay at the Florida Academy. I went there in the last semester of my third year of high school. The place was full of tennis talent. My first bankmate? Andre Agassi.
Destiny has a mysterious effect on our lives. Had I not attended the US Open that year, I wouldn’t have gone to the Boltery Academy.
Had I not attended the academy, I wouldn’t have been confident of attending the University of California, Berkeley. The University of California, Berkeley has been the power of college tennis for many years and has shaped my adult life. In Cal, I went from low recruitment to full scholarship and became the first African-American to captain the men’s tennis team.
Destiny gives way to all of us.
My brother John and I will treat my father on his first trip to New York at the 2004 US Open since the Equitable Life Building.
It was there that he realized he was ill. He was out of breath and struggled, losing not only a step but also a measure of spiritual sharpness. One hot afternoon he wandered and lost his way.
Shortly thereafter, my father lay down on the hospice. He was dying of amyloidosis, a blood disorder that attacks the brain, lungs, and heart.
We often held hands because he had been struggling for the rest of his life. I searched for traces of his familiar, comforting strength. Sport was the string that reconnects us when he evokes the energy to speak.
We talked about memories. I remember the common love for Seattle SuperSonics and Roger Federer, and all the beautiful years I’ve spent playing tennis with since I was a toddler.
“We always have an open,” he told me, holding my hand firmly.
Yes, I guarantee, we always do.