Charity taught Ashe, others by example

One in a series on the 2017 Class of the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame by John Packett

Charity taught Ashe, others by example

One afternoon in 1950, when he was around seven years old, Arthur Ashe Jr., was watching someone practice tennis on one of the four courts right outside the side door of his home near Brook Field Park on the city’s North Side.

Ashe had been very impressed with the way the man had hit balls against the wall or served into an empty court for hours on end.

Eventually, the man invited Ashe to join him and asked if he wanted to learn how to play the game. Ashe went inside and got an old racquet he had used to knock balls around occasionally on those courts, where his father was in charge of the playground.

That man was Ron Charity, who worked patiently with Ashe for the next three years until he was good enough to be noticed by Dr. R. Walter Johnson, who invited Ashe to his summer camp in Lynchburg, where his life was changed forever.

Unlike Richmond, where he couldn’t play anywhere other than Brook Field because of segregation, Ashe got the opportunity to play against better competition and went on to spend his senior year of high school in St. Louis.

From those simple beginnings with Charity, Ashe eventually became one of the best players in the world, becoming the first – and only – black man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, not to mention serving as U.S. Davis Cup captain and coach.

In recognition of Charity’s role in Ashe’s success, he will be inducted posthumously into the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame, when the 2017 class is enshrined during a gala dinner and reception on Oct. 28 at the Westwood Club.

Charity died in 1991 at the age of 61, two years before Ashe passed away from complications of pneumonia brought on by the AIDS virus, which Ashe had contracted from a blood transfusion in 1983 that occurred during open-heart surgery.

Charity’s only child, Khris, recalls hearing his dad talk about his relationship with Ashe that started on the Brook Field courts. At the time, Ron Charity was a part–time student at Virginia Union and tennis instructor — and one of the best black players in the country.

“My dad took him under his wing and taught him as far as he could,” said Khris Charity. “Until he saw his skill level was probably as good or better as his at that time, because my dad had basically learned how to play tennis from a book.”

Ron Charity took Ashe to Lynchburg, so he could learn more about the fundamentals of the game as well as how to conduct himself on the court. He also entered Ashe in (mostly black) American Tennis Association tournaments, where he won the boys 12-and-under division when he was only 10.

“Dr. Johnson gave him the technical training he needed on the clay courts,” said Charity. “I remember seeing Althea Gibson there and some of the other top black players that came through to work with Dr. Johnson.

“They [Charity and Ashe] maintained a friendship throughout the years and had a couple of business ventures together.”

Khris Charity recalls his dad being ranked in the top three by the ATA nearly every year when he was growing up.

“If he could get enough practice time in, he could be very competitive,” said Charity. “He was pretty confident in his abilities.”

Charity moved to Danville after Ashe left Richmond, and helped former state champion Jim Milley develop his game.

“He taught me by example,” said Milley, who won the state singles title from 1978-80 and was runner-up in 1981. “I didn’t have any formal lessons with him. I played with him quite a bit. He was always willing to play whenever I called him.

“I liked his backhand. He had a very good, slice backhand, and that was always one of my better shots. And his ability to play points. He knew how to play points because he had been there, and I hadn’t really played anybody. Just by playing with Ron made me a lot better.

“He had a very flat game but everybody did back then. I liked Ron a lot. He had a very good mind for the game. He wanted me to get better. He was better than me at that point, and you usually get better when you play somebody better than you.”

“He was physically very fit and very athletic,” added Richmonder Tom Chewning, who watched him play doubles a few times. “Had these long, flowing ground strokes. Arthur told me he learned his ground strokes from him.”

By 1966, Ashe had become one of the top players in the country and was making a name for himself on the world scene. He reached the final of the Australian championships (not open to professionals yet), losing to Roy Emerson.

The Richmond Tennis Patrons Association was trying to put together a tournament and needed eight players for the event. Ashe was obviously someone they coveted, not only because of his recent prowess but the fact that hardly anyone in Richmond had seen him play locally.

The question was would Ashe agree to be in the field, after all those years of never being allowed on most of Richmond’s courts in those segregated days? It turns out Charity was the perfect mediator for the situation.

“The first person we got to play in the tournament was [Chuck] McKinley because he was an investment representative for a firm that was servicing our account [where Lou Einwick worked], and he said of course he would play in the tournament,” said Einwick.

“The second one we went to was Arthur, and I don’t think anybody in the white Establishment knew how to contact Arthur. But Massie Valentine knew Ron Charity, and he went to Ron and said, ‘Would you contact Arthur and see if he would be willing to come to Richmond and play in the tournament?’”

Charity was glad to do it, and “the rest Is history in the thing,” said Einwick, the tournament director.

Ashe didn’t win the inaugural tournament at the old Arena – losing in the first round — but he was a fixture in the fields over the event’s 19-year run and won it three times. His presence in that first tournament assured large crowds.

“I think the tournament hit a perfect storm in that no one had seen Arthur play ‘professionally’,” said Einwick, “and he was the hottest thing on the circuit at the time, winning a bunch of matches after we contacted him.”

Would the tournament have been a success without Ashe? “Certainly I doubt it would have been as big a success, but I think it would have gotten well off the ground,” said Einwick. “But Arthur was a big factor in making it a big success.”

Another contribution Charity made to the local scene was getting the city tournament moved from the Country Club of Virginia to Byrd Park in 1967. Blacks couldn’t play at CCV in those days so the only solution was to have the tournament played somewhere else.

For a number of years Charity had tried to enter the city tournament but was always turned down because of the no-blacks rule at CCV. Finally, after some “negotiating” by Charity, the event was moved to Byrd Park.

Ashe gave Charity perhaps the ultimate compliment, when he wrote in “Off the Court” following his Wimbledon triumph over Jimmy Connors in 1975, “Wimbledon represents the highest achievement in my craft.

“I reached the pinnacle of an effort that began with Ron Charity in 1950 on a playground in Richmond. It’s a long way from Brook Field to Wimbledon’s Centre Court.”

There will be an article about each of the 2017 Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame Inductees.

To see the full list of members of the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame click here.