Though cool and composed throughout his tennis-playing career, Arthur Ashe today confesses to an unusual desire. ``I would love to go out on the court for one match and be a complete jerk. It would be entirely out of character for me, but it would be interesting just to experience what it's like.'' The prospect was particularly hard to imagine on this day, with the impeccably dressed Ashe, in tan suit, pinstriped shirt, and navy blue tie, looking to all the world like the distinguished and dignified champion he was in past years.
Accompanied by an entourage of proud family members, including his father and photographer wife Jeanne Moutoussamy, the former Wimbledon and US Open champion had come to Newport, R.I., for his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Ashe retired from competition five years ago after facing a physical challenge, but remains active in the sport on many fronts, including as a broadcaster and US Davis Cup captain.
As a player, his greatest triumphs were perhaps winning the 1968 US championship that lauched the ``open era'' and beating Jimmy Connors for the Wimbledon title in 1975.
An Army lieutenant and still an amateur at the time of the 1968 Open, Ashe collected only a trophy and $20 a day in travel expenses for beating Tom Okker in a five-set final. Okker was awarded the winner's share, which was $14,000.
``That win was significant because no American had won the tournament in 13 years and it refocused attention on American tennis,'' he explains, ticking off the names of US stars to follow -- Smith, Evert, Connors, Austin, and McEnroe.
Currently Ashe is deeply involved in the Davis Cup. His captaining duties, which began in 1980, found him at the team's helm last December, when the behavior of American star Jimmy Connors in a loss to Sweden managed to infuriate a number of people and inspire the adoption of a code of conduct by the US Tennis Association.
The code has been a source of friction, a relatively harmless document that nonetheless has alienated the team's best and most loyal player, John McEnroe, who, on principle, has refused to sign the US Davis Cup team ``contract.'' As a result, neither he nor Connors, who has bowed out of Cup play, will suit up for a quarterfinal match against West Germany Aug. 2 in Hamburg.
Earlier this week Ashe named the team -- Eliot Teltscher and Aaron Krickstein to play singles, Robert Seguso and Ken Flach to handle the doubles. This group provided the US with a 5-0 opening-round shutout of Japan, but, assuming Wimbledon champion Boris Becker plays, the West Germans will present a stiffer test.
Up to a point, Ashe understands McEnroe's reluctance to formally sign a playing commitment, since his word was good enough in the past. ``On the other hand,'' Ashe says, ``the USTA runs the Davis Cup team and it's entitled to impose whatever reasonable qualifications it deems fit.''
Basically Ashe supports the less stuffy atmosphere in his sport today. ``Tennis, as this place epitomizes, once had a Victorian sense of behavior that has nothing to do with modern athletics, especially at the professional level.'' he says looking out over the storied Newport Casino grounds, home to the hall of fame.
Even so, it was never in Ashe's makeup to cause a scene on the court. And besides, he believes black players can ill afford short-fused outbursts. ``If somebody black acted like that they would get it,'' he says of the potential backlash. ``Plus I think there would be unbelievable pressure from the black community to cut that garbage out, because you're embarrassing us.''
Though Althea Gibson proceeded him into the hall of fame, Ashe too was a pioneering, black figure in the sport. And while more blacks seem to be matriculating into the sport, none has yet obtained the stature Ashe earned in the men's game. This neither disturbs or surprises him, however.
Economic forces, he says, continue to gravitate against the emergence of black stars. ``It costs almost nothing to learn tennis, but a lot of money to learn how to play well. If you're thinking of playing pro tennis, you're talking about at least $70,000 in development expenses.''
Ashe says ``a special set of circumstances'' allowed him to overcome the many hurdles to the top. His youth tennis coach was a go-getter who transported his prot'eg'es from tournament to tournament, and his father, a recreation department worker in Richmond, Va., had friends willing to support Arthur's career.
Today Ashe works diligently to bring black players into the game through his involvement with the National Junior Tennis League and the Black Tennis and Sports Foundation. The objective for serious players, he says, is to make the Junior Davis Cup team. ``Once you do that you're home free because the USTA pays your expenses.''
Ashe maintains a realistic outlook in his efforts. ``You can't force things, because the average black community in the US is not tennis oriented,'' he observes. ``The big three in the black community are basketball, football and track. You can play them in the public schools.''