|ESPN Network: ESPN.com | NBA.com | NHL.com | WNBA.com | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY|
Ashe was first African-American male to win a Slam
Ashe's impact reached far beyond the court
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"After he contracted the AIDS virus he was asked, 'Is this the hardest thing you've ever had to deal with?' And he said, 'No, the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with is being a black man in this society," says author Ralph Wiley about Arthur Ashe on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
The tennis "firsts" were served up and chronicled through most of Arthur Ashe's life. They often arrived hand in hand with his color: first African-American male to win the U.S. championship, first to win at Wimbledon, first to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team, and on and on.
While sports record books dutifully mark these achievements, civil rights and health historians embrace a more substantive image of the man who seldom shied from fighting for what he believed was right. His fight lasted to the final days of a much-publicized bout with AIDS, a personal struggle he had hoped to keep private.
An independent thinker who considered himself a moderate, Ashe crusaded against South African apartheid and the treatment of Haitian refugees. He pushed for higher academic standards for athletes, particularly for minorities. He raised millions of dollars for inner-city tennis centers and the United Negro College Fund, started the African- American Athletic Association and wrote A Hard Road to Glory, a definitive, three-volume work on black sports history.
"He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity," said friend Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Ashe won 33 singles titles as a professional, including three Grand Slam events, before heart disease forced his retirement in 1980 at 36. Typical of his commitment, the very next year he became the national chairman of the American Heart Association and began an active post-career life, much of it devoted to voluntary public service. While staying involved in tennis as a Davis Cup captain and television analyst, he quickly crossed the bridge from sports stardom to teacher, social activist and international ambassador.
"I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without human purpose," he said, "without trying to help the poor and unfortunate, without recognizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others."
Arthur Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943 in Richmond. His mother Mattie died of complications from surgery when he was six. His father Arthur Sr. was a special policeman in Richmond's recreation department and looked after the city's largest playground for African-Americans, adjacent to their home.
Ashe learned tennis on the playground's courts and civility from his father, who taught him and his younger brother Johnnie to avoid making enemies. "You gain by helping others," Arthur Sr. said.
The slender youngster developed into an outstanding player, taught by a part-time coach, Ronald Charity, and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, coach of tennis great Althea Gibson. Barred from playing on local public courts because of his color, Ashe often traveled great distances to play in tournaments.
He attended segregated schools in Richmond before spending his senior year of high school in St. Louis, where he could compete more freely against white players. An "A" student, he passed on a chance to attend Harvard. Enrolling at UCLA in 1961, he studied business administration and played on the tennis team. In 1965, he helped the Bruins win the NCAA title by capturing the singles tournament.
At 20, Ashe was selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1963, playing on the squad until 1970 and then again in 1975, 1976 and 1978. Competing for his country had been a childhood goal. "Since no black American had ever been on the team, I was now a part of history," Ashe wrote in his memoir, Days of Grace. "Despite segregation, I loved the United States."
He won 27 of 32 Cup matches, more than any American to that point.
Throughout his career, Ashe hit the ball hard and sometimes erratically. He played adventurously but under control, rarely showing emotion, a trait that some mistook for indifference.
After graduation in 1966, Ashe went to West Point, N.Y., to serve a two-year Army commitment as an officer but continued to play tennis. In 1968, he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. He then won a unique double: the last U.S. Nationals for amateurs and the first U.S. Open (pros hadn't been allowed in the tournament previously).
Employing a ferocious serve, he beat Dutchman Tom Okker in five sets for the Open title at Forest Hills, N.Y. "How can you play tennis when you can't see the ball?" Okker asked.
Ashe's second Grand Slam title came in 1970 when he defeated Dick Crealy in straight sets in the final of the Australian Open, an event in which he finished second three times.
That same year, he called for South Africa's expulsion from the International Lawn Tennis Federation and when he tried to travel there, had his visa application denied. Three years later, Ashe was granted a visa and became the first black player in South Africa's national championships.
In 1975, he won his last Grand Slam singles title when he upset defending champ Jimmy Connors in four sets in the Wimbledon final. His serving display impressed former Wimbledon champion Don Budge, who said, "Ashe was the first one to play Connors the right way, to put the ball where his reach was limited."
In July 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery five months later. He retired the next year with a professional record of 818-260 in the Open era.
Health problems continued after his playing days as Ashe became, in his words, a "professional patient." Diligently preparing for his post-tennis life, he adhered to a W.E.B. DuBois notation, "Lord, make us not great but busy."
Named Davis Cup captain in 1980, Ashe coached the team from 1981-85. His initial enthusiasm waned after sparring with emotional players such as John McEnroe.
He taught an honors seminar on the modern black athlete at a small college in Miami. He formed the Ashe-Bollettieri Cities (ABC) tennis program, The Safe Passage Foundation, the Athletes Career Connection and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. He served on the board of the Aetna Life and Casualty Company. He actively pursued social justice, focusing heavily on the apartheid issue and making several trips to South Africa to see conditions firsthand.
Ashe, who befriended black South African leader Nelson Mandela, was arrested in 1985 during an anti-apartheid protest in Washington and later that year marched on the U.S. mission to the United Nations in a similar cause. "Marching in a protest is a liberating experience," he said. "It's cathartic."
After feeling numbness in his hand in August 1988, Ashe was hospitalized and learned that he had AIDS. His exposure was traced to a blood transfusion received five years earlier after double-bypass surgery. He and his wife Jeanne decided to keep the news private, telling only their closest friends.
Ashe confronted the disease with little visible fear and remained as busy as his health allowed. "Despair is a state of mind," he wrote in Days of Grace, "to which I refuse to surrender."
Earlier in 1992, aware that USA Today had learned of his illness, Ashe went public with the news that he had AIDS. At the press conference, he also said that his wife and five-year-old daughter were HIV-negative.
On Feb. 6, 1993, he died of AIDS-related pneumonia in New York. Arthur Ashe was 49. His body lied in state in Richmond, where it was viewed by more than 5,000 people.
"He was an ambassador of what was right," said Bryant Gumbel in an HBO special on Ashe. "He was an ambassador of dignity. He was an ambassador of class."
Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories