There, slumped John McEnroe, the world’s highest ranked tennis player, mournfully reading a newspaper in a corner of the locker room.
There stood Ivan Lendl, the second best player in the world, just a few meters from me in the cramped quarters. In a few hours he would be on center court, but now he was talking to another player about golf.
Got it all, a fly on the wall amidst tennis royalty. Mats Wilander has been there. I could hear Jimmy Connors telling his naughty jokes.
Was this really happening? Was I 16 in the locker room at the 1983 US Open? Even today, I pinch myself when I think about it.
That year my dad and I were a doubles team representing the Pacific Northwest in the sire and son division of the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge. We flew to New York, all expenses paid, to compete against amateur tandems from across the country in the popular tournament. His championship rounds were held at Flushing Meadows, right in the middle of the American 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 cherished memory with my late father.
What another time it was. In 1983, the total prize money for male and female pros was $ 1 million. Fans and players mingled on the pitch. Upon entering through the gates, no one checked your luggage.
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 where the pros played. We had passes that got us into the locker room, right there with the best players in the world.
In week two of the Open, after playing a game in our little tournament where the jackpot was a silver plate, I showered next to a small handful of pros in the shower room. I was there – soaping myself in the buff – when one of the pros walked in to take a shower. It was Frenchman Yannick Noah, my favorite player, who made his way to victory at Roland Garros that summer, becoming the first black player to win a Grand Slam championship since Arthur Ashe won. Wimbledon in 1975.
Noah kindly asked questions about me in his accentuated 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 good luck.
As great and lucky as they are, those rare moments in the locker room were not what struck me the most in this Open. What stands out are the meetings with two other tennis luminaries. Meetings that changed my life.
One afternoon at Flushing Field, I spotted Nick Bollettieri, the former Army paratrooper turned super-coach whose Florida tennis academy has produced many of the world’s best young players.
I slipped towards Bollettieri. I asked about his academy and told him that I dreamed of attending one day, but my family, struggling after my parents divorced and my father’s small business went bankrupt, couldn’t not afford the extremely high price. Fortunately, one of Bollettieri’s assistant coaches was nearby. The assistant said he saw me fight one of the seeds at the 16-and-under boys’ national championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. I needed polish, the assistant said, but I had some slack.
Bollettieri thought for a moment, then motioned for me to come closer. “Find Arthur,” he asked, “and ask him if he will help you. Bollettieri meant Arthur Ashe, whose victory at Wimbledon had sparked my tennis ambition. The two had teamed up to help other minority players attend the academy.
If Arthur funds some of it, Bollettieri said he would help as well.
I ended up asking my dad to find Ashe and bring up Bollettieri’s idea. It seemed too difficult a task for me to accomplish. But dad always pushed me, always looked for ways to help me stand on my own feet. He had learned tennis himself after his college basketball career ended and insisted that I also learn tennis. Now he told me it was my job, and mine alone, to pitch.
So began my search for Arthur Ashe. I was usually not so brave, but I waited for him to finish a press conference near the center court of the old Louis Armstrong stadium. When he was done, I approached lukewarm.
I can still feel Ashe’s welcoming handshake, still feel her patience as he listened intently to what I had to say. I remember he had promised to see what he could do to help.
The next day, while my dad and I were playing one of our matches on the Flushing field, Ashe stopped to look at some points.
At first I was so nervous that I made some easy returns. But when it was time to unleash my only real weapon, a left-handed serve that I could explode like a fastball or bend into a spinning arc, I upped it.
As. As. Winner.
My dad and I didn’t win the tournament, but we won this game. And Ashe knew I was for real.
A few months later, at my home in Seattle, I received a phone call. “Hello, Kurt,” the voice said on the other end of the phone, “it’s Arthur Ashe.”
He had made an agreement with Bollettieri to help me 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 roommate? André Agassi.
Fate has a mysterious influence on our lives. If I hadn’t been to the US Open that year, I wouldn’t have finished at Bollettieri Academy.
If I hadn’t attended the academy, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to attend the University of California at Berkeley, a perennial collegiate tennis powerhouse and the university that shaped my adult life. At Cal, I went from a modest rookie to a full scholarship and became the first African American to captain the men’s tennis team.
Fate has its way with all of us.
My brother Jon and I ended up giving Dad a trip to New York for the 2004 US Open, our first time since the Equitable tournament.
It was there that I noticed he was ill. He was struggling to catch his breath and had lost not only a step but also a measure of his mental acuity. One sweltering afternoon, he walked away and got lost.
Soon after, my father was lying in a hospice. He was dying from amyloidosis, a blood disease that attacked his brain, lungs and heart.
As he fought for life, we often held hands. I searched for any trace of his familiar, comforting strength. When he mobilized the energy to speak, sport was the link that united us again.
We talked about memories. We remembered our mutual love for the Seattle Sonics and Roger Federer, and all the great years we’ve spent playing tennis together since I was a kid.
“We will always have the Open,” he told me, shaking my hand firmly.
Yes, I assured, we always will.