There John McEnroe, the highest-ranking tennis player in the world, lay sadly reading a newspaper in a corner of the locker room.
There stood Ivan Lendl, the second best player in the world, just a few yards from me in the cramped quarters. In a few hours he would be on center court, but now he was talking about golf with another player.
I took it all in, a fly on the wall in the midst of tennis kings. Mats Wilander strolled past. I heard Jimmy Connors tell his bawdy jokes.
Did this really happen? Was 16-year-old me in the locker room at the 1983 United States Open? Even today I pinch myself when I think about it.
That year, my father and I formed a doubles team representing the Pacific Northwest in the father and son division of the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge. We had flown to New York, all expenses paid, to compete against amateur tandems from across the province in the popular tournament. The championship rounds were held at Flushing Meadows, right in the middle of America’s tennis grand slam.
Since then, the US Open has been special to me in a way that I feel to the core. Without it I would be a different person. And I wouldn’t have a fond memory of my late father.
What a different time that was. In 1983, the total prize money for the male and female pros was $1 million. Fans and players mingled on the ground. On entering through the gates no one checked your bags.
As part of the Equitable event, teams of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives and siblings played matches on the same courts the pros played. We had passes that allowed us to go into the locker room right there with the best players in the world.
During the second week of the Open, after playing a match in our small tournament where the big prize was a silver plaque, I showered next to a small group of pros in the shower room. There I was – lathering in the buff – when one of the pros came in to take a shower. It was French Yannick Noah, my favorite player, who had fought his way to victory at the French Open that summer and became the first black player to win a Grand Slam tournament championship since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.
Noah kindly asked about me in his accented English. I explained that I was a nationally ranked junior, 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 game that night in the quarterfinals. He said he couldn’t wait.
“I hope you and your father are here,” he added before wishing us luck.
As wonderful and happy as they were, those rare moments in the dressing room weren’t what I remember most about that Open. What is striking are the encounters with two other tennis stars. Encounters that changed my life.
One afternoon on the Flushing grounds, I spotted Nick Bollettieri, the former Army paratrooper turned supercoach whose Florida tennis academy produced many of the world’s best young players.
I moved towards Bollettieri. I asked about his academy and told him that I dreamed of going to college one day, but that my family, who struggled after my parents divorced and my father’s business faltered, could not afford the extremely high price. Fortunately, an assistant coach from Bollettieri was nearby. The assistant said he saw me put up a good fight against one of the top tier boys 16 and under in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had to brush, the assistant said, but I had game.
Bollettieri thought for a moment, then motioned for me to come closer. “Find Arthur,” he ordered, “and ask him to help.” Bollettieri was referring to Arthur Ashe, whose win at Wimbledon had fueled my tennis ambitions. The two had teamed up to help other minority players attend the academy.
If Arthur funded some of it, Bollettieri said he would help too.
Finally, I asked my father to find Ashe and bring up Bollettieri’s idea. It seemed too much of a task to me to do. But Dad always pushed me, always looked for ways to help me stand on my own two feet. He had taught himself tennis after his basketball career ended in college, and he pretty much insisted that I learn tennis too. Now he told me it was my job, and mine alone, to make the pitch.
Thus began my search for Arthur Ashe. Normally I wasn’t that brave, but I waited for him to finish a press conference near center court at the old Louis Armstrong Stadium. When he was done, I approached lukewarm.
I can still feel Ashe’s welcoming handshake, still feel his patience as he listened intently to what I had to say. I remember he promised to see what he could do to help.
The next day, when my father and I were playing one of our matches at the Flushing ground, Ashe came over to check on some points.
At first I was so nervous that I clumped some easy returns. But when it came time to unleash my one true weapon, a left-handed serve that I could shoot like a fastball or bend into a spinning arc, I set it up.
Ace. Ace. Winner.
My father and I didn’t win the tournament, but we did win that game. And Ashe knew I was real.
A few months later, I got a call at my home in Seattle. “Hello, Kurt,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “this is Arthur Ashe.”
He had struck a deal with Bollettieri to help pay for my stay at the Florida Academy. I went there for the last semester of my senior year in high school. The place was teeming with tennis talent. My first bunk mate? Andre Agassi.
Fate has a mysterious reign in our lives. If I hadn’t been to the US Open that year, I wouldn’t have ended up at Bollettieri’s academy.
Had I not attended the academy, I would not have had the confidence to attend the University of California, Berkeley, a perennial collegiate tennis power and the university that shaped my adult life. At Cal, I played my way from humble recruit to full scholarship and became the first African American to captain the men’s tennis team.
Fate has its way with all of us.
Finally, my brother Jon and I treated my dad to a trip to New York for the 2004 US Open, the first time we’ve been back since the Equitable tournament.
There I noticed that he was sick. He was gasping for breath and had lost not only a step, but a measure of his mental acuity. One sweltering afternoon he wandered off and got lost.
Not long after, my father was in hospice. He died of amyloidosis, a blood disease that affected his brain, lungs and heart.
While he struggled for life, we often held hands. I looked for a trace of his trusted, reassuring power. When he summoned the energy to talk, sport was the tightrope that tied us together again.
We talked about memories. We remembered our shared love for the Seattle Sonics and Roger Federer, and all the wonderful years we spent playing tennis together since I was a toddler.
“We’ll always have the Open,” he said, gripping my hand tightly.
Yes, I assured you, we always will.