McPhee aces Ashe’s victory: ‘Levels of the Game’ delves into a 1968 tennis match, and the lives of the two men playing it

January 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 16, 2014

In the summer of 1968, amateur American tennis players Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner met in a semifinal match of the U.S. Open tournament. At that point, no American man had won the singles title in 13 years.

Writer John McPhee was on hand for the contest and penned an account of it for The New Yorker magazine. That story is the basis for the 1969 book Levels of the Game, McPhee’s in-depth exploration that combines a stroke-by-stroke description of the sporting event with detailed profiles of the two men. This slender volume — the text runs just 150 pages — is clearly written and compelling, even to a tennis layman such as myself. (I’ve attended a few U.S. Opens, but I don’t play or follow the sport.)

Part of the appeal here is the two men whose game and lives McPhee chronicles, compares and contrasts. The privileged Graebner, the son of a Cleveland dentist, was a scion of the country-club establishment. His opponent, Ashe, came from a hard-scrabble background, the likes of which tennis literally had never seen before.

The following paragraph captures something of Ashe’s essential character, as well as of his importance to tennis and American sport and society:

Arthur’s mother had taught him to read when he was four. He was an A student all through school. He never read detective stories, Westerns or comic books. “I didn’t want to waste a dime on comic books. Ridiculous. The dime would be gone in five minutes.” For the most part, he read biographies and general factual writing, and he went through the World Book Encyclopedia. He read books beside the tennis courts when he wasn’t playing, and he would continue this habit during tournaments in later years. In high school, he played the trumpet in a combo called the Royal Knights, but he actually mixed very little with his classmates, for his tennis increasingly took him out of their milieu. He was a good pitcher and a good second baseman, but his high-school principal, impressed by his development in tennis under Dr. [Robert Walter] Johnson, kept him from playing on the high-school baseball team. Black high schools in Richmond, in his era, had no tennis teams. Before long, and because of him, they would all have tennis teams.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of tennis knows the result of this match (and of its sequel): Ashe defeated Graebner and won the U.S. Open final, becoming America’s first black male tennis singles champion. One of the fascinating things here, however, is that Graebner very nearly reached the final; the men were closely matched in ability, and they knew each other well enough to be able to exploit — and compensate for — one another’s weaknesses. Witness this:

Graebner, standing straight up, pulls his racquet across and then away from the ball as if he had touched something hot, and with this gesture he blocks back Ashe’s serve.

Ashe has crossed no man’s land and is already astride the line between the service boxes, waiting to volley. Only an extraordinarily fast human being could make a move of that distance so quickly. Graebner’s return is a good one. It comes low over the net and descends toward Ashe’s backhand. Ashe will not be able to hit the ball with power from down there. Having no choice, he hits it up, and weakly — but deep — to Graebner’s backhand.

But whereas one can read Levels of the Game simply as a sports book, I think the text is more valuable for the way it captures a cross-section of America at a certain moment in time.

Ashe played Graebner in Forest Hills, N.Y., more than two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of Major League Baseball, but this was still a period when America’s typical default pushed white (and especially WASP) males to the forefront. This was a time when Ralph Bunche, a black Nobel Peace Prize winner and a highly placed United Nations official, could be rejected from a tony New York City tennis club. (The club purportedly didn’t accept Jews, either, although this seems to have been a fib told by its president.)

At one point in his reporting, McPhee encouraged Ashe and Graebner to speculate about their futures. The Ohioan believed that he might be a millionaire by age 40; “I don’t want to be just a fifty-to-sixty-thousand-a-year man,” he sniffed.

His predictions for Ashe weren’t quite as rosy. “Of course, he’s never going to be chairman of the board, or president,” Graebner said, alluding to Ashe’s likely career trajectory at tobacco maker Philip Morris.

He’ll be a brand manager, or a vice-president in charge of marketing, making fifty or sixty thousand a year. That’s an easy way to go. It’s a lot easier to make half a fortune than a whole fortune. Even though Arthur is well accepted in a place like Philip Morris, he’s never going beyond that level. I accept Arthur any way, but many people don’t. He’s accepted only because he’s a tennis player. If the West Side Tennis Club rejected Dr. Bunche, they’re going to reject him. Meanwhile, he’ll get married around age twenty-eight and have three kids. I think he’s too smart to marry a white girl. That’s a headache. If he marries a white girl, who’s going to house him? He’ll live in a very lovely residence somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t know where a Negro executive lives in New York. I don’t even know. I don’t know where they live. I just don’t know.

That closing passage, wherein Graebner says “I don’t know” four times in four sentences, says a lot about the tennis player, the man interviewing him and the times.

McPhee, a master journalist and writer, clearly established enough of a rapport with Graebner that the athlete was comfortable discussing sensitive topics. I believe that Graebner genuinely respects and even likes Ashe, but his mindset truly is that of another, very different era. I find it hard to imagine a successful executive today, regardless of his or her race (or his or her spouse’s race), being restricted in housing choices, especially in New York nowadays. (Can’t one live anywhere one can afford to live?)

Yet McPhee’s 45-year-old book feels strikingly immediate and lively. I first purchased Levels of the Game at a used bookstore in June 2012, and I put off reading it until recently. That was a mistake; this is a fun and a rewarding read, and one that I recommend highly.

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