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Breaking the Barriers Exhibit in Denver

December 15, 2015 11:31 AM

By Charles Emmons
Commissioned by USTA Colorado

The cold weather makes us think of warmer climates and activities, like tennis. There is still time to see the exhibit at the downtown Denver Public Library recognizing Colorado’s diverse tennis community. Award winning photographer Barry Gutierrez photographed 39 tennis players and advocates of the game, and these life portraits are displayed with placards with their musings about tennis. The display is up through December.

1963_Davis.Cup.Team.Arthur.Ashe.TeamUSTA Colorado has led the way with promoting the Breaking the Barrier message of celebrating diverse tennis players and acknowledging their achievements. Inspiring other governing bodies around the country, a momentum is taking place where USTA Eastern in White Plains, NY and USTA Northern California in the Bay Area have utilized the International Tennis Hall of Fames’ Breaking the Barriers and ¡Vive El Tenis! exhibits in their communities.

In Denver, the Library’s current exhibit in the Gates Reading Room features African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, as well as those with disabilities, who have found, played and promoted tennis within Colorado. It shines a light on Colorado’s broad spectrum of tennis players and advocates. 

“The stars aligned,” says Allen Kiel, who has a long history of volunteer tennis leadership.

The Breaking the Barriers exhibit was slated for the Denver Public Library, and the current president of Cherry Hills Country Club, Buz Koelbel was a 10-year old ball boy for the 1963 United States Davis Cup tie played there, the first for a young 20-year old player, Arthur Ashe. A celebration seemed appropriate, which was incorporated into a reception at the library in October, orchestrated by Paula McClain, Marketing and Director of Diversity, USTA Colorado.

1963 was tumultuous. It began with Alabama governor George Wallace’s, 'segregation now, segregation forever’ inaugural speech. June saw civil rights leader Medgar Evers assassinated. In August, Dr. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington. Tension and struggle ruled, yet club tennis pro, the late Arnie Brown and the club leadership courageously moved forward in hosting the event.

The Davis Cup team arrived early to get acclimated. Arthur Ashe stayed at Arnie Brown’s home. Ricardo “Pancho” Gonzales who had welcomed the talented Ashe into his home and had seen him at UCLA was coaxed out of retirement to coach the team. Koelbel recalls talking with Gonzales the icon, and interacting with Ashe and the other players. “Even as a 10-year old I realized it was a big event,” says Koelbel. “But it wasn’t until many years later that I realized it was a threshold event with Arthur being there and Pancho at Cherry Hills.”

AkijiThe event went off without incident or protest. “He would have quelled the problem if there was one,” says Jerry Berglund, of Arnie Brown. “He did things by example.” Berglund was a 15-year old ball boy for the event and remembers the intensity and extraordinary play of 35-year old Pancho Gonzales even as he hit with the team.

Arnie Brown, George Calkins and Ted Bursler led the charge to bring the event to Cherry Hills. “Arnie Brown was the real force behind getting this done,” says Koelbel. “He was a man ahead of his time. He believed in equality; he believed in everybody mattered who played tennis. They embraced what Arnie was doing and it ended up being a tremendous threshold event for the club and the area and for tennis in Colorado.”

Arthur Ashe returned to Colorado numerous times. In 1983 Allen Kiel, then president of the Colorado Youth Tennis Foundation, drove Ashe up the driveway of Cherry Hills to a fundraising event. “Oh, Cherry Hills this is where I played my first Davis Cup tie”, remarked Ashe. Kiel, surprised, asked him how did that go? “They treated me great. I felt welcomed.”

Given Ashe’s acceptance by the team, and with full access to the club, the event had tremendous poignancy. In 2003 Kiel, then Chairman of the U.S. Davis Cup proposed to have plaques placed at every venue that hosted a Davis Cup match. In 2005, during the presentation at Cherry Hills, Dennis Ralston, 1963 Davis Cup teammate of Ashe, was tearful. Kiel, puzzled by his reaction, says Ralston told him, “This was Arthur’s first Davis Cup. That was a big thing Allen.”

Ricardo “Pancho” Gonzales opened the doors. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe followed him through. Tennis, as a sport has an easy entry point, and isn’t confined to lessons at clubs. Charles “Hank” Henry, featured in the Breaking the Barriers Exhibit still plays in his 80’s. After seeing the USC team practice in his neighborhood at 17, Henry bought a tennis racket and started hitting balls against the wall of a garage. Pancho Gonzales’ son, Daniel, a coach at Littleton High School, remarked he didn’t play on a tennis court until he was 15. Up until then it was a garage door. The game changes on the court when you face an opponent other than yourself and you experience the lessons it offers. “You’re always going to be learning,” Pancho told Daniel. “As you get better the game gets tougher.”

With no formal tennis training, Pancho Gonzales was a relentless winner, and as a Mexican American representing America as a tennis player, he was conflicted about the injustice in decisions. African Americans featured in the film documentary “Crossing the Net”, fought to get onto the courts of Denver’s City Park. Both Ashe and Gonzales were advocates for public court play and bringing the game to everyone. One significant obstacle tennis players face is the perception of others. Gonzales came of age in tennis during the period of the zoot suit riots. Mastering opponents on the court, off the court he was sometimes perceived as temperamental. Gonzales was all about winning. “He liked being able to hit something as hard as he could without getting into trouble”, says his son Daniel, about his father.

Gonzales won his first Davis Cup in 1949 and at 41 was ranked #6 in the world. He is a testament to a game which more than any other provides life lessons. The benefits of playing tennis are often intangible. It teaches discipline and commitment and forces you to navigate elements of precision as well as randomness. “There are no problems, only answers on the court,” Gonzales once told his son. “Tennis is usually about who makes the best adjustment, not necessarily the best player.”

Top photo: United States Davis Cup Team and “Buddies”: Marty Riessen, Arthur Ashe, Dennis Ralston, Gene Scott;
Courtesy of Cherry Hills Country Club

Bottom photo: USTA Colorado Breaking the Barriers-Asian Connection: Representing one of the elements of nature, “fire” portrait of Akiji Koiwalakai, 2013 US. Open Wheel Tennis Championships Qualifier;
Courtesy of Barry Gutierrez

 

 

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