Last September, the USTA reached out to me and asked if I would play an exhibition match as part of the grand opening of the East St. Louis Tennis Courts. I decided to call my childhood coach, Craig Sandvig, so I could discuss this opportunity with him.
We met the next day for lunch, and Craig encouraged me to attend this event. Craig also told me that his long-time friend and fellow St. Louis tennis coach, Martin Rogers, would be attending the event as well and that I should introduce myself to him there. Specifically, Craig suggested that I inquire about Martin’s friendship with one of Arthur Ashe’s childhood coaches. I kept Craig’s advice in mind and made it my mission to introduce myself to Martin at the opening.
I cannot discuss Arthur Ashe without discussing the 2002 National Arthur Ashe Essay Contest. When I was 12 years old, I had the good fortune of winning this contest. In doing so, I was given the opportunity to go to the US Open where I was able to sit in the Arthur Ashe Box and attend Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day. Most memorable though, I was able to meet Arthur’s wife and daughter. Even though the civil rights hero and tennis icon had passed on, I felt like I was able to meet a piece of Arthur that weekend. As the grand opening drew near, I thought more about Arthur. I thought about his poise, his many accomplishments, and the barriers that he broke. Finally, I thought about his connection to St. Louis. I knew that Arthur had trained in St. Louis when he was 18
years old, but I did not know what had brought him here. I was excited to learn more from Martin.
The day came for the grand opening, and I made my way over to Lincoln Park. There, right in the middle of the park, were three brand-new, beautiful tennis courts. There was a huge crowd of around 600 people in attendance. The East St. Louis High School band and cheerleaders and city leaders and officials were all present to mark the occasion. It was a celebration. After I played in the exhibition match, I finally had a chance to meet Martin. He was so kind and gave me a hug right away. I told him that I wanted to hear all of his stories about Arthur Ashe and the time that he spent in St. Louis. He began by telling me how Arthur came to St. Louis to complete his senior year of high school at Sumner High School.
Of Arthur coming to St. Louis, Martin says, “African American’s were not allowed to play open tournaments in Richmond, VA, his hometown. He was encouraged by Dr. Walter Johnson, his coach then, to come to St. Louis…and train under the tutelage of Richard Hudlin who taught social studies at Sumner and coached their tennis teams. “The rest (as the saying goes) is history.” Hudlin coached Arthur during his time in St. Louis at the Armory tennis courts (now the site of an abandoned building) located in downtown St. Louis. (Hudlin also has ties to Althea Gibson, the first African American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour and win a Grand Slam tournament.) These courts were basically a gym floor with lines painted on them and a net separating the sides. Martin told me how his friend coached Arthur during this time in St. Louis, transforming him from a back-court player to a serve and volley specialist.
Photo Credits: Martin Roger. Arthur Ashe in St. Louis a year after winning his first Wimbledon in 1976