As the US Open tennis tournament enters its second crucial week, many of this weekend’s top matches will be played inside Arthur Ashe Stadium – the crown jewel of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York.
Many will remember Arthur Ashe as a groundbreaking championship tennis star who became the first black man to not only win the US Open (1968), but also Wimbledon (1975) and the Australian Open (1970). Once the top-ranked player in the world, Ashe endured a series of heart troubles at a young age. He eventually succumbed to AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion during one of his many cardiac surgeries.
As Ashe was dying at the age of 49, someone wrote him and asked if was bitter. He penned the following response:
“The world over — 50 million children start playing tennis, 5 million learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach Wimbledon, 4 to semi-finals, 2 to the finals.
When I was holding a cup, I never asked God, ‘Why me?’ And today in pain I should not be asking GOD ‘Why me?’
Happiness keeps you Sweet. Trials keep you Strong. Sorrow keeps you Human. Failure keeps you humble, and success keeps you glowing, but only faith & attitude keeps you going.”
Where did Ashe find such faith? Born into a Christian family, the legendary player credited his parents with introducing him to Christ – and a fellow tennis competitor with helping him reignite and recommit his life to the Lord.
Tennis Hall of Famer Stan Smith, perhaps best known for his namesake Adidas shoes, was a good friend of Ashe’s. Due to a variety of factors, including having to endure discrimination due to his race, Ashe had grown disillusioned about Christianity, finding many of its so-called adherents to be hypocritical. But then came Stan Smith, a fierce rival and fellow Grand Slam championship player.
According to the late television producer Bob Briner, who was friends with both Ashe and Smith:
“Arthur Ashe was able to get an up-close and personal look at Stan’s faith. What he found was consistency. If Stan won, he was gracious, and if he lost, he was just as gracious. If it was the middle Sunday at Wimbledon and all the other players were resting for the grueling second week, Stan was speaking in some London church.”
Stan Smith accepted Christ as a student at the University of Southern California (USC).
“I was introduced to four spiritual laws,” he said earlier this summer at a men’s retreat in Hilton Head, SC. “God loves us and has a plan for our lives; man is sinful; God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins past, present and future; and that we can accept Him as our Savior and have eternal life.”
“Well, I mulled over that,” he added. “We had a group of athletes that got together for Bible study and to discuss some of these issues. It was during my sophomore year that I made a decision to follow Christ. That has been the foundation of my life ever since.”
“I’ve got four wonderful children, a great wife,” Smith said. “I’ve tried to really live by the basics of my faith, and teach the basics to my kids. And now we have 13 grandkids. To really understand the fundamentals of life, and how to treat people and how to act: It’s all very basic stuff that’s important to me and that’s been important to my family.”
One life and one decision can impact countless others, of course. Many will see the names Ashe and Smith on stadiums and on tennis trophies for years to come – but it’s the Christian faith of both men that serves as their greatest legacy of all.