Book review: Levels of the Game

While the jet stream obstructed JetBlue’s progress toward San Francisco I read Levels of the Game from start to finish. In the era of HDTV the idea of reading a prose description of a U.S. Open semifinal tennis match that happened 46 years ago does not seem compelling. However, the fact that the description was written by John McPhee makes all the difference.

The match was between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. McPhee covers the path that enabled these guys to reach the top. Here was Graebner’s:

Behind every tennis player there is another tennis player, and in Graebner’s case the other player is his father. Clark grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, and played tennis as a boy in Lakewood Park, at Lakewood High School, and at clubs in Cleveland and Shaker Heights. Paul Graebner, Clark’s father, grew up in Lakewood, and played tennis as a boy in Lakewood Park, at Lakewood High School, and at clubs in Cleveland and Shaker Heights. He was the state high-school tennis champion—a title his son would win three times. He was on the tennis team at Kenyon College and played briefly on the tournament circuit in the Middle West. He went to dental school at Western Reserve University and then went into practice with his own father, Clark’s grandfather. From then until now, the major diversion of Dr. Graebner’s life has continued to be tennis. His week revolves around Wednesday-afternoon and Saturday doubles games. When Clark was a beginner, however, Dr. Graebner completely gave up his own tennis for five years, and every Wednesday and Saturday and at all other practicable times he took Clark to a tennis court and patiently taught him the game.

When Dr. Graebner first hit strokes back and forth with Clark, they did not use a net. Dr. Graebner wanted Clark to hit a good flat stroke with follow-through, and not to worry about its altitude.

“He taught me everything. I don’t think he wanted to make me a champion. He just wanted to make me as good as I wanted to be. He hit balls at me for hundreds of thousands of hours, as if he were a Ball-Boy machine.”

Dr. Graebner says. “I wasn’t trying to build a champion. I was trying to get him interested in something he could do all his life.”

Ashe’s path was prepared by a medical doctor, rather than a dentist:

Dr. Johnson had built his court in the mid-nineteenthirties, when tennis had come to assume a priority in his mind second only to medicine. For him, this was the ultimate game in a lifetime accented with sports. … He took his training at Meharry Medical College. When he began his practice in Lynchburg, he was thirty-five. “I knew, from medicine, that I had built up big heart muscles and that they had to have exercise to avoid fatty infiltration. This is why athletes drop dead. I didn’t want to die that way. I tried a little basketball. That didn’t pan out. Then I went all out for tennis. I was self-taught. I learned by watching white players. Tennis was the hardest game to master that I had ever contacted.

Above the techniques of the game itself, he held certain principles before them as absolute requirements —in his view—for an assault on a sport as white as tennis. Supreme among these was self-control—“no racquet throwing, no hollering, no indication of discontent with officials’ calls.” Since players call their own lines in the early rounds of junior tournaments, he insisted that his boys play any opponents’ shots that were out of bounds by two inches or less. “We are going into a new world,” he told them. “We don’t want anybody to be accused of cheating. There will be some cheating, but we aren’t going to do it.”

If the Junior Development Team had a motto, it was “No horseplay”—the Johnson code. They learned to make their beds properly. Without fail, they hung up their clothes. When a lady came into a room, they got up, or wished they had. They learned an advanced etiquette of knives, forks, and spoons. “I want you to be accepted without being a center of attraction,” he said. “I want you to be able to take care of yourself in any situation where habits or manners are important, so that you don’t stand out. We are going into a new world.”

Year after year, two of them went to Charlottesville, and though “slaughtered” and “humiliated” were no longer the terms for what generally happened to them, none got particularly far. Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson got a call one day in 1953 from Ronald Charity, a recent graduate of Virginia Union, in Richmond, and a ranking player in the men’s division of the A.T.A. Charity said he had been working part time teaching tennis in a public park, and for several seasons he had been hitting the ball with a small boy whose physique was not prepossessing but who hit the ball well and seemed to care a great deal about playing tennis. Charity hoped that although the boy was only ten years old the doctor would let him come to Lynchburg. Dr. Johnson said, “All right, Ronald. I’ll take him for a while, if you want to carry him up here.” Charity drove to Lynchburg on a Sunday, and introduced Dr. Johnson to Arthur Ashe, Jr.

Ronald Charity, who taught Arthur Ashe to play tennis, was himself taught by no one.

“I guess by that time I was about the best in Richmond—you know, black tennis player,” Charity continues. “One day, Arthur asked me if I would show him how to play. He had had no tennis experience. I put the racquet in his hand. I taught him the Continental grip. That’s what I was playing with. At first, I would stand six feet away from him, on the same side of the net, and throw balls to him while he learned a stroke. The little guy caught on so quickly. When the stroke had been taught, I would cross the net and hit it with him. We practiced crosscourt forehands, forehands down the line, crosscourt backhands. We played every summer evening. There was a little backboard there. All day long, he would practice. We had a club—the Richmond Racquet Club, all grown men—and we let him join it.

Behind Dr. Johnson’s house is a combined garage and tool shed that contains a curious device. From a bracket on the floor to a beam above runs a vertical elastic cord, drawn fairly taut. About two feet off the floor, the cord passes through the center of a tennis ball. The height of the ball is adjustable. The developing tennis players hit this ball with pieces of broom handle cut twenty-six inches long, the exact length of a tennis racquet. The device, known as the Tom Stow Stroke Developer, was invented by the teacher of Sarah Palfrey, Helen Jacobs, Margaret Osborne, and J. Donald Budge.

The Junior Development Team has generally had eight or ten members. In recent summers, white boys have applied for admission, and Dr. Johnson has let some in.

What about money in the sport? It was a little different than today!

The Junior Development Team functioned in part on contributions from interested people in the A.T.A., but Dr. Johnson put thousands of dollars of his own specifically into Arthur’s career. Three white businessmen in Richmond—an insurance broker, a department-store executive, and a legitimate-theatre executive—contributed significant amounts, and Arthur’s father gave more than he could afford. Arthur once overheard him saying that he was a little sorry his son had chosen a sport as expensive as tennis. The cost of equipment alone was more than a thousand dollars a year.

His summation of the whole of Arthur’s development as a tennis player is “It hung me for some money.” His present landscaping and janitorial businesses grew out of odd jobs he took to help pay for Arthur’s tennis. He cut grass, scrubbed floors, washed windows, and when he still didn’t have enough he borrowed from the Southern Bank & Trust Co., whose branch banks he now keeps clean. Asked why he bothered to do all that, he gives an uncomplicated answer: “Why? Because Arthur was out there doing good.” He told Arthur, “Do what you want to do, as long as you do it right. But the day you slack up is the day Daddy is going to slack up with his money.”

Graebner lives in an apartment on East Eighty-sixth Street with his wife, Carole; their one-year-old daughter, Cameron; and their infant son, Clark. Graebner spends much of his time selling high-grade printing papers, as assistant to the president of the Hobson Miller division of Saxon Industries,

Ashe is an Army lieutenant, working in the office of the adjutant general at the United States Military Academy. He is a bachelor, and during tournament time at Forest Hills he stays at the Hotel Roosevelt.

Ashe and Graebner are both extraordinarily conscious of the stock market, and each thinks he is a shrewd investor. An amateur tennis player at their level can have something to invest, since he can collect in expenses and sundry compensations as much as twenty thousand dollars a year.

Attitudes toward skin cancer were apparently different back in 1968:

Graebner, for his part, sincerely wishes that he could play with his shirt off. He is aggressively vain about his tan. “After we played in San Juan two years ago, I was as dark as Arthur,” he says proudly. When he is sunbathing, he will snap at anyone who stands between him and direct sunlight for as much as three seconds.

What about fashion?

Love beads hang on a hook on the door. Ashe looks extremely contemporary when he goes off to New York for a date wearing the beads, a yellow turtleneck, and what he calls his “ru” jacket.

How about skin color?

Because Ashe is black, many people expect him to be something more than a tennis player—in fact, demand that he be a leader in a general way. The more he wins, the more people look to him for words and acts beyond the court. The black press has criticized him for not doing enough for the cause. He has repeatedly been asked to march and picket, and he has refused. Militant blacks have urged him to resign from the Davis Cup Team. Inevitably, they have called him an Uncle Tom. Once, in Milwaukee, he was asked to march with Stokely Carmichael but said no, and on the same day he visited a number of Milwaukee playgrounds, showing black children and white children how to play tennis. The demands of others have never moved him to do anything out of character. He will say what he thinks, though, if someone asks him. “Intrinsically, I disapprove of what black militants do. Human nature being what it is, I can understand why they have such a strong following. If you had nothing going for you and you were just a black kid in a ghetto, you’d have historical momentum behind you and it would be chic to be a black militant—easy to do, very fashionable. You’d have your picture and name in the paper because you’d be screaming your head off. They sound like fire-and-brimstone preachers in Holy Roller churches. But you must listen to them. You can’t completely ignore them. Their appeal is to the here and now. If I were a penniless junkie, I’d go for it, too. I’d have nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up. But you can’t change people overnight. If you took a demographic survey of blacks, you’d find, I think, that the farther up the socio-economic scale you got, the fewer people would be behind Stokely. I’m not a marcher. I’m not a sign carrier. I’m a tennis player. If you are a leader in any field, and black, you are a hero to all blacks, and you are expected to be a leader in other fields. It’s beautiful. People in Richmond look upon me as a leader whether I like it or not. That’s the beautiful part of it. The other side of the coin is that they expect the same of some lightheavyweight boxer that they do of me. But he doesn’t have my brain. He tries to get into politics, and we lose some leverage.

Progress and improvement do not come in big hunks, they come in little pieces, and the sooner people accept this the better off they’ll be.

We’re outnumbered ten to one. We’ll advance by quiet negotiation and slow infiltration—and by objective, well. planned education, not an education in which you’re brainwashed.

One of the saddest parts of reading the book was reflecting on the fact that Ashe died before his 50th birthday, a victim of heart disease and HIV. He had been influential in many areas of public life.

More: Read Levels of the Game

3 Comments

  1. Izzie L.

    July 31, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

    1

    It’s very sad, especially given that Ashe contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion (in connection with his heart bypass surgery) at a time when the blood supply was not yet being screened (and that today most bypass operations don’t require third party donor transfusions at all). And that there was no treatment for him once he contracted HIV. It was only 20 years ago and yet it seems like the dark ages already.

  2. wally w

    August 5, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    2

    the nittiest of picks:

    “He hit balls at me for hundreds of thousands of hours”

    Since one hundred thousand hours would be about 12 years non stop, or 50 years of normal work weeks, this is a bit of an exaggeration.

    But nice review.

  3. philg

    August 5, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

    3

    Wally: You’re suggesting that McPhee should not be able to quote a hyperbole from an interviewee? Or that the interviewee didn’t say it that way? Or that McPhee should have pointed out the likely error in arithmetic?

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