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Blackface turmoil comes amid bid to honor Arthur Ashe

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RICHMOND, Va. — A movement to rename a Richmond, Virginia, thoroughfare for groundbreaking black tennis player Arthur Ashe Jr. is cresting just as the state finds itself in turmoil over a blackface scandal involving the governor and attorney general.

The man behind the street renaming says the confluence of the two unrelated developments involving race and history could become an opportunity to start a conversation about race at a pivotal time.

“If we can rename the Boulevard after him, it would be a huge cultural step forward. This is where we can start with reconciliation and we can start talking about the issues,” says Ashe’s nephew, David Harris Jr.

“It would be an opportunity for the City Council to be leaders on this. We know what’s going on down the street at the state Capitol. This would be a way for the City Council to say, `We want to show you the way.”‘

Ashe’s once-segregated hometown boasts an athletic center named after him, and a bronze sculpture of Ashe sits among Richmond’s many Confederate statues. But a proposal to rename a historic street for Ashe has been defeated twice since his death in 1993.

A third proposal comes before the City Council for a vote Monday amid the blackface scandal .

Leaders throughout Virginia’s political structure have called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced recently.

Northam apologized, initially saying he appeared in a photo showing one man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam did not say which costume he wore. The next day he said he no longer believed he was in the photo but acknowledged wearing blackface the same year to look like Michael Jackson in a dance contest.

Days after Northam’s admission, Attorney General Mark Herring was forced to acknowledge that he, too, wore blackface in the 1980s while trying to look like a rapper at a college party.

Meanwhile, for all of Richmond’s hometown pride in Ashe, repeated attempts to rename a city street after him have failed. Harris initially resurrected the idea of renaming the street after his uncle last year.

Called simply “Boulevard,” it’s a busy 2.4-mile (3.9-kilometer) stretch dotted with restaurants, museums and stately homes. Modeled after grand European boulevards in the late 19th century, Boulevard was designated as a state and national historic landmark in 1986.

At one end sits Byrd Park, with tennis courts where Ashe was denied access during his childhood because of segregation. The athletic center named for Ashe is also on Boulevard.

City Council member Kim Gray, whose district covers a portion of Boulevard, has sponsored the Ashe renaming ordinance.

Some residents and business owners say they don’t want to change the historic name. Others cite the inconvenience and expense of officially changing their address, including getting new letterhead and signs.

Harris and Gray say they understand those concerns but also believe racism may underlie some of the opposition.

“I find it hard to believe that people get that angry over stationery,” said Gray, who said she’s received racist emails over the proposal.

Longtime residents insist they have nothing but admiration for Ashe but believe there are better ways to honor him than legally changing the name of their street. A group called the Boulevard Coalition wants the Richmond History and Culture Commission to hold citywide community discussions about how to honor Ashe and then make a recommendation to the City Council.

The controversy comes at a time when Richmond, a one-time capital of the Confederacy, has been grappling with calls to remove Confederate statues. Richmond’s Monument Avenue features statues of five Confederate figures, including Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Ashe’s statue was erected among those rebel icons in 1996, but only after rancorous debate.

Harris said renaming Boulevard after Ashe would give Richmond a chance to shed its past image and show it has become a progressive city.

“We’ve celebrated things that have been associated with slavery for years. Well, let’s celebrate equality, inclusion and diversity, as opposed to the slave picture we’ve had in Civil War history,” Harris said.

Ashe was the first black player selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team and the only black man to ever win the singles title at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open. He was also well-known for promoting education and civil rights, opposing apartheid in South Africa and raising awareness about AIDS, the disease that eventually killed him.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney urged the City Council last month to approve the change, calling Ashe “one of Richmond’s true champions.”

A 2004 city ordinance says street names indicated on city maps for 50 years or longer should only be changed under “exceptional circumstances.” Gray and Harris say they believe naming Boulevard after Ashe is one of those circumstances.

But City Council member Parker Agelesto, whose district covers part of the street, said his constituents favor an “honorary renaming” that keeps Boulevard as the street’s official name.

“Nobody wants this to be controversial, and Arthur Ashe is not a controversial figure,” Agelesto said. “The question is: How do you make it successful for all parties involved?”

Tennis and tropical plants: New French Open court is wild

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PARIS (AP) Tennis and tropical plants: The stunning new court at the French Open is, quite literally, wild.

Surrounded on all four sides by greenhouses filed with exotic plants, the Court Simonne Mathieu saw its first French Open match on Sunday, a triumph for tournament organizers who overcame strong opposition from critics who long sought to block construction in a 19th-century garden of the 5,290-seat arena.

Automatic sprinklers periodically doused the lush greenery from Africa, Asia, South America and Australia as Garbine Muguruza, too busy to notice, beat Taylor Townsend of the United States 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.

Muguruza, the 2016 champion, later gave a big thumbs-up to the sunken arena that is now the third-biggest at Roland Garros, after the 9,829-seat Court Suzanne Lenglen and the 14,962-seat showcase Court Philippe Chatrier that is in the process of being rebuilt.

“It’s a very cute court. It’s not small, but it’s, you know, cozy,” Muguruza said. “It’s like in a garden. It’s a different feeling.”

Spectators were impressed, too.

“It’s like being in a forest,” said Parisian Kelly Orsinet. “It’s relaxing and pleasant.”

Sinking the red clay court and surrounding it with tasteful modern hothouses filled with leafy plants prevented it from being an eyesore in its historic surrounds, the Auteuil gardens that date back to 1898 and are loved for their majestic steel and glass greenhouses for prized botanical collections.

Expanding into the gardens is part of a massive, partially completed 380-million euro ($425 million) revamp of Roland Garros, the smallest of tennis’ Grand Slam venues that can feel uncomfortably cramped in its busiest opening week.

Gilles Jourdan, the project manager overseeing the modernization, was on hand to savor the new arena’s atmosphere with its first crowd, a landmark in what has been a difficult birth, complicated by legal challenges from opponents.

Neighbors who overlook the site had “said `It’s a disgrace! A disgrace!” Jourdan recalled. “Fewer and fewer are saying it’s a disgrace now.”

“You can’t see the court. That’s very important and that was the most fundamental idea,” he said. “If you’re not flying overhead in a helicopter, you wouldn’t know there’s a court there.”

Like other showcase courts at Roland Garros, the lower of the arena’s two tiers is tastefully fitted with cream-colored, hand-finished seats of chestnut wood from eastern France. Upper-tier spectators, some of whom have a view of the Eiffel Tower, are seated on benches, because fitting seats up there would have blocked lines of sight, clogging the arena’s airy, open feel, Jourdan explained.

Named after the French Open women’s champion in 1938 and 1939, the Court Simonne Mathieu was about half-empty for the start of the match but continually filled as Muguruza fought back from her unsteady start in a westerly breeze that shook leaves on the tall trees overlooking the arena.

Modernization work will resume after the tournament. The Chatrier court, largely torn down after Rafael Nadal won his 11th title there last year, has been rebuilt but is still missing the retractable roof planned for next year.

In the meantime, organizers have done a good job of making the project-in-progress look spic and span for the next two weeks.

“It’s a bit like at the theater: You look backstage and go `Ooops,”‘ Jourdan said. “We’ve hidden everything, and 10 days after the tournament, we’ll start again.”

Tennis’ Big 3: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic still rule tennis

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The Big 3 are still very much around. They’re still leading the rankings, still collecting the biggest trophies. And they’re still the dominant figures in men’s tennis, responsible for the main storylines when the French Open starts Sunday.

Roger Federer returns to Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 — and a decade after he completed the career Grand Slam by winning his only trophy there. Rafael Nadal seeks a record-extending — and hard-to-fathom — 12th title in Paris. Novak Djokovic bids to win his fourth major championship in a row for the second time in his career, something neither of his two great rivals ever did even once.

They occupy the top three spots in the rankings, with Djokovic followed by Nadal, then Federer. They occupy the top three slots on the list of most men’s Grand Slam titles, with Federer’s 20 followed by Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 15. And they have combined to win the past nine major tournaments, with three apiece.

“Nadal’s reign is never over. Just like Federer’s reign isn’t ending,” said Riccardo Piatti, who coached Djokovic when the Serb was a teen and has worked with other top-10 players. “As long as they play, they’re always very dangerous. But let’s not forget that Djokovic is No. 1.”

Might seem silly now, but there was a stretch when some wondered whether this group might be done with all of that winning.

Federer, who’s now 37, went 4½ years without adding to his Slam count. He dealt with knee surgery and recurring back problems. He sat out the 2016 French Open, ending a streak of 65 straight major appearances, then missed the U.S. Open and Rio Olympics that year, too. He skipped the entire clay-court circuit each of the last two years, before finally coming back this season and reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, where he withdrew, citing an injured right leg.

“In practice in Switzerland, I felt good right away,” Federer said about what it initially was like for him on the slow surface, which requires extra footwork and lengthy, grind-it-out exchanges. “Very happy where I’m at, to be quite honest. I was a bit surprised that it went as easy as it did.”

Nadal, who turns 33 during the French Open, did not win a title all season until last week at the Italian Open, which is mainly surprising because it means he kept faltering on his beloved clay.

He’s been sidelined by hand and knee injuries in 2019, and his play hasn’t always been up to his usual standards.

“Been some low moments for me,” he said.

But Nadal looked a lot more like himself in Rome, where he handed opponents a total of four 6-0 sets, including one against Djokovic in the final.

Asked to look ahead to Paris after that three-set loss, Djokovic said: “Nadal, No. 1 favorite, without a doubt. Then everyone else.”

“He’s one of the greatest champions this game has ever seen,” Djokovic said. “His mentality, his approach, his resilience, ability to fight back after long absence from the tour, injuries, surgeries. He’s had it all. He keeps on showing to the world why he’s one of the biggest legends of tennis history.”

Djokovic, who turned 32 on Wednesday, missed the last half of 2017 with a bad right elbow; he eventually had surgery last year, which he began with a 6-6 record and losses in the Australian Open’s fourth round and French Open’s quarterfinals. He was so bothered by the latter, which stretched his major title drought to two years, that he left Roland Garros in a huff, declaring he might skip Wimbledon.

So much for that.

Not only did he play at the All England Club, he won the trophy. Then he did the same at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, making him the only man in tennis history with three separate streaks of three consecutive majors. Now Djokovic has a shot at a non-calendar Grand Slam, something he already accomplished in 2015-16 — and can set his sights on a true Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same season, which only has been done by two men: Donald Budge in 1938, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.

And Djokovic has looked good on clay lately, winning the title in Madrid before losing to Nadal in Rome.

So now, really, the question is: How much longer can this terrific trio continue to thrive and hold off talented up-and-coming players such as 25-year-old Dominic Thiem, who lost to Nadal in last year’s French Open final, or 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Federer in Australia in January before losing his first Grand Slam semifinal to Nadal?

“Time is undefeated and these guys are doing a hell of a job of fighting it off, but it has to come at some point,” said International Tennis Hall of Fame member Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. “Once these guys are gone, there’s a serious vacuum. … Roger, Rafa and Novak — they’re arguably the three best of all time.”

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AP Sports Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.