In America, the United States and Canada have graciously set aside the month of February as Black History Month. The tradition began in 1926. It’s grown in both acceptance and significance since inception.
It was created to recognize the extraordinary, struggles, sacrifices and achievements made by multitudes of black Americans. Many of these men and women lost their lives in heroic efforts to win equality for African Americans and all peoples of color who, because of their non-white status, suffered under an oppressive force reluctant to grant foundational freedoms laid out in the constitution.
This post is a celebratory tribute to one female and three specific male African American tennis champions and the commonality that bonded them.
Black Americans played and undeniably vital role in the growth and flourishing of our nation despite toiling in a society where race was such an divisive issue. Still, we forged ahead striving to win fundamental civil rights that were an accepted birthright of those not of color.
Though race is still an uncomfortable, unfortunate, counterproductive issue in American society, and there is work yet to be done, great strides towards rectification have occurred in the past three decades.
I’ve lived through those times, been a participant in and witness to many positive changes.
The sporting arena was one of the most important avenues through which change could occur.
Sports provided widespread venues in which peoples of all races, ethnicity or whatever other factors seem to drive a wedge between humans, could be put aside. Athletes came together to test themselves against one another.
Differences often melted away in Olympic competition as athletes gave their all for the glory of their respective countries.
Althea Gibson became the first African American player of either gender to be allowed to compete in both national and international tennis competition.
The tennis world is to be commended for opening that door at a time when racism was widespread in American society. It was a good thing which showed that tennis was growing more open-minded. It also served as an important source of hope and inspiration for others of color.
Ms Gibson wasted little time in justifying tennis’ wisdom in granting her the right to play. In 1956 she became the first African American to win a grand slam, the French Open. The following year, she won Wimbledon. She repeated as Wimbledon champion in 1958.
Ms Gibson’s accomplishments in tennis were so outstanding that she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall Of Fame as well as the International Women’s Sports Hall Of Fame.
Clearly, she helped pave the way for African Americans and for female athletes of all races as well.
Without doubt, Ms Gibson encountered racism along an arduous road. But she was a trailblazer with incredible will and strength of character.
Thankfully, she persevered.
I snapped the photo below in 1976 one year after Arthur Ashe became the first and still only black male to win Wimbledon.
It’s a precious photo. It captures three generations of African American tennis champions standing together.
From left to right are pictured Arthur Ashe, Richard Hudlin, and Juan Farrow. Mr. Hudlin coached Ashe during his senior year at Sumner High school here in St. Louis, Missouri. As noted in a previous post (Long Overdue, This Is For You…Mr. Richard Hudlin), it was within the confines of the Armory, on slick wooden floors that Mr. Hudlin converted Arthur from a baseline player to serve/volley specialist.
Arthur went on to become a three-time grand slam champion. He is still the only black American male to win a slam. He won three, Wimbledon, the U S Open, and the Australian Open.
Throughout his career both on and off court, through health and illness, Arthur championed many, many causes. He did so actively rather than simply lending his celebrity. He made a difference. He left the world a better place than he found it.
Arthur Ashe died on February 6, 1993. He died during Black History Month twenty years ago. It’s so very fitting that his life be celebrated during this month.
I’m proud to have known Arthur and even more proud of the many things he accomplished towards bettering the human condition.
Arthur was a great, great man. There’s a void without him, but his legacy is a rich one and his humanitarian works continue. In a way, he’s still with us.
Regarding Mr. Hudlin, in retrospect, I’m awed by all that he accomplished especially considering the stiff resistance he encountered against blacks gaining more expansive access within St. Louis’ tennis community. But, like Althea Gibson with whom he was connected, he forged onward pulling many of us along with him.
Mr. Hudlin was highly instrumental in winning access for his Tandy Park Muny tennis players to city-wide municipal parks by filing and, improbably, winning a lawsuit which opened the doors.
Mr. Hudlin died in 1976, just a few months after the above photo was taken. As did Arthur, Mr. Hudlin left a rich, though albeit, more obscure legacy of accomplishment geared towards bettering the human condition within his immediate sphere of influence.
Richard Hudlin was a great man. He was a foot soldier who fought to clear a path so that others could follow.
Juan Farrow was a direct beneficiary of the coaching of Mr. Hudlin and the giving of Arthur Ashe.
After working with Juan for some time, Mr. Hudlin astutely recognized that the generation gap between he and Juan was almost impossible to bridge. Juan was 16, Mr. Hudlin in his 70′s. It was increasingly difficult for the two to effectively communicate.
Mr. Hudlin recruited me to serve as mentor for his teenaged prodigy. I was in my early 20′s working with teenagers everyday as a biology teacher at Southwest High School.
Mr. Hudlin hoped that my youth would allow for a more productive line of communication. In addition to mentoring, I became an intermediary between coach Hudlin and Juan.
Juan lived with my family for the remainder of his high school years. During that period he won everything in site.
Arthur regularly called to check on Juan’s progress and help provide any financial assistance needed to house him and defray expenses incurred when he traveled to out-of-state tournaments.
Juan was a gifted athlete with uncanny tennis instincts. He too was persuaded by Mr. Hudlin to incorporate serve/volley tactics into his game. And man, could he ever volley!
After graduation, Juan was recruited by coach Kent Demars to play tennis for the SIU (Southern Illinois University) Cougars where he became a three-time collegiate national singles champion in 1977, 78, and 1980.
Juan was also selected to become a member of the under 21 U. S. Davis Cup team and later spent time on the professional tour. Though he had wins over top ten players during his touring period, he was unable to produce those results consistently. It’s tough out there.
Still, Juan Farrow was the number one player in the nation as both 12 and 14-year old. He regularly competed in older kids divisions and won. He was arguably one of if not the best player in St. Louis during his high school years and his accomplishments at SIU are still standing records.
Juan is now a teaching pro in Macon, Georgia. I’m confident that he is passing on some of the lessons he learned, passing on a bit of the great Richard Hudlin and Arthur Ashe, the two greats with which he will forever be linked.
The three had something in common. They were all African American, all champions, and all indispensable contributors to the tennis community of St. Louis.
We were lucky to have them.