RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - In his book, “Days of Grace,” Arthur Ashe begins his story by writing his reputation is his most prized possession.
Today, 26 years after his death, he maintains a reputation of being a champion, both on and off the tennis court.
This Saturday, hundreds of people will come together to recognize and celebrate that reputation with the official unveiling of the new Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
It is a nod to the legacy of excellence many say he left behind, and it is a legacy now influencing a new generation.
As with anything, you have to start somewhere.
For some students, the game of tennis begins on the courts behind Armstrong High School.
It is all part of a program through the Metro Richmond Tennis Club, which prides itself on building kids with every serve, and for about 10 years now, they have built hundreds of them.
"We give kids the opportunity to learn how to play the game of tennis and understand that some of the choices you make on the tennis court are the same choices in life," said tennis coach Donald Raspberry.
Both 17-year-old Kendal Green and 18-year-old Charlesten Freeman chose to learn the game nearly a decade ago. Since then, their confidence on the court has grown as much as their competence.
“I would say I’m just as great as the pros almost,” said Green. “I’m a left-handed person. So that means my serve will always be a spin. I have a natural spin. No right-handed person could ever match it.”
“I got a big serve and a good forehand. A solid forehand,” said Freeman.
They work hard perfecting their game, individually and as a pair, and they have the awards and scholarship offers to prove it. However, there is also an additional perk.
“You build good friendships with tennis,” said Freeman. “You get to travel and play tournaments. Meet new friends.”
You meet lifelong friends, which Lenny Simpson knows all too well. Back when he was 9-years-old, the North Carolina native played with a club similar to the Metro Richmond Tennis Club. He was the youngest person chosen to be part of a new tennis junior development team in Lynchburg, created by Dr. Robert Johnson, who was considered the godfather of black tennis.
"Dr. Johnson believed in the philosophy of old school, and the old school method is the older kids take care of the younger kids. So, he assigned Arthur Ashe to take care of little Lenny Simpson, and so that's how it all started," said Simpson.
At the time, his new friend, Arthur Ashe, was 15 years old, and they traveled the tennis circuit together.
"I think what was so special about his game is number one, of the adversity that he had to go up against in order to just hit a tennis ball. A simple tennis ball," said Simpson. "Not only did he have to worry about the other great players in the country that he had to play against, but he had to go up against all of the adversities of the color of his skin."
Like Ashe, Simpson went on to break records as a professional tennis player. He eventually founded the One Love Tennis program for children in his hometown of Wilmington.
However, through it all, his friendship with his world famous mentor lasted until Ashe passed away in 1993.
“We called each other and promised each other that we would call each other every seven days and we never missed not calling each other every seven days no matter where we were,” said Simpson. “He was my hero because of what he stood for because of what he did, and how he accomplished what he did. He did it the right way, with a racket in his hand or with a racket not in his hand. He did it with dignity and grace, and I will never, ever forget him for all of the rest of my entire life.”
Arthur Ashe's legacy of "doing it the right way" continues to influence the way the game is taught today to all of these young friends of the Metro Richmond Tennis Club.
"You see what he did and how classy he was, and that's what we try to teach the kids. Be a good person on and off the court. Call the good line calls. Be the good person. Make the right decisions," said MRTC vice president Karen Jones. "He wasn't rich. He got an opportunity like we try to give to them, and we tell them, I'm not saying you are going to be the next Wimbledon star, but you can take it further than it started."
Ashe started and finished strong in tennis and in life, which these players - in between serving aces and set points- are striving to do as well.
"Life isn't easy, but just like Arthur, we all will push through," said Green.
So, when it comes to the renaming Boulevard in honor of a person they truly admire -
“I think it’s well deserved of him and I wish he was around to see it,” said Freeman.
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