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Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe: The tennis star who broke boundaries on and off the court

Arthur Ashe, winning the 1975 ABN World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The 1975 men’s singles final at Wimbledon has been described as one of the most amazing ever seen. At age 31, Arthur Ashe came into the match as the underdog against 22-year-old Jimmy Connors, the then world number one.

Although the pair shared the same nationality, both heralding from the United States, nothing about their game or character was alike. Connors was arrogant, brash and whacked the ball from the baseline with great ferocity. Ashe on the other hand was calm, gracious and loved the serve and volley style of play.

Their three previous encounters had all led to defeat for Ashe and coming into the final Connors was in imperialistic form, having not dropped a single set during the entire tournament. He was also the defending champion and many feared the final might be one of the biggest one-sided affairs in the history of the illustrious tournament.

What transpired was the opposite. Ashe won in four sets after just two hours. He had completely altered his style of play to one that countered and subdued Conner’s strengths. Richard Evans, the former tennis writer for the Independent described it as ‘like watching a fast bowler go out and bowl leg-spin.’

Ashe had made history becoming the first and only black man to ever win at Wimbledon, a ground-breaking achievement in a life littered with remarkable feats.

Ashe was born in 1943 in Richmond, Virginia. After his mother passed away when he was just six years old, his father Arthur Ashe Sr raised him and his younger brother. A caring but strict disciplinarian, Ashe Sr kept his son away from trouble. Just a year after his mother’s death, Ashe discovered the game of tennis, picking up his first racket at a segregated playground near his home.

A natural talent, it wasn't long before Ashe had caught the eye of local tennis instructors and soon he'd been introduced to Robert Walter Johnson, the coach of Althea Gibson, Wimbledon's first black female winner. For the next few years, Johnson honed Ashe's game and instilled in him the values of sportsmanship, composure and etiquette, values that Ashe would come to epitomise throughout his life.

Growing up under Jim Crow laws, enforced racial segregation prevented Ashe from having the same benefits as his white counterparts. He was prevented from using indoor courts, barred from tennis clubs and banned from competing against white youths in Richmond.

'Having grown up in a segregated environment in the South I know what it's like to be stepped on, I know what it's like also to see some black hero do well in the face of adversity,’ Ashe once said.

Although hindered, Ashe’s star was on the rise and new ground was about to be broken left, right and centre. In 1963, he became the first African American to win the National Junior tennis title. That same year he became the first black player to ever be selected for the U.S. Davis Cup team. After gaining a scholarship to UCLA, a string of collegiate titles would follow. In 1966, Ashe joined the army and was later assigned to the Military Academy at West Point.

By 1968, Ashe was the number one ranked amateur in the world after capturing the U.S. Amateur Championship. That same year the first U.S. Open of the open era was held, with the tournament throwing its doors open to professionals and amateurs alike. Ashe entered the competition as an amateur and an active member of the U.S. military. He was also the only African American amongst the entire 128-man field; he was (in his own words) as ‘noticeable as the only raisin in a rice pudding’.

Ashe reached the final and defeated Dutchman Tom Okker in a five-set thriller to become the first-ever black winner of a men’s Grand Slam tournament. He remains the only player in history to capture both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open titles in the same year.

Although unable to accept the $14,000 winners cheque due to his amateur status, Ashe’s Open win propelled him to national stardom and it wasn’t long before he turned pro and left the military. Lucrative sports endorsements followed and Ashe became the first African-American millionaire in tennis.

Soon he’d climbed to the top of the rankings, becoming the game’s first black number one ranked player. In 1970, Ashe became the first black winner of the Australian Open, defeating local favourite Dick Crealy in straight sets and adding another major victory to his belt.

Ashe’s 1975 Wimbledon victory would be his last Grand Slam title, just a few years before ill-health forced his retirement. In 1976, he married photographer and artist Jeanne Moutoussamy and the pair later adopted a daughter.

In 1979, at the age of 36, Ashe suffered a heart attack; his family had a history of cardiovascular diseases. After undergoing a quadruple bypass operation, he officially retired from tennis in 1980 with 51 titles to his name, three Grand Slams, three Davis Cup victories and a legion of fans throughout the world.

Although his on-court C.V. was enough to see him inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, it was his off-court achievements that Ashe was most proud of.

‘True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost,’ Ashe was recorded as saying.

The tennis star dedicated the majority of his later life to championing causes such as civil and human rights as well as gender equality. He used his platform and influence for social action, helping to create inner-city tennis and employment programmes for the youth, fighting against apartheid in South Africa and helping to found the Association of Tennis Professionals. He also wrote a three-volume book titled A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, which was published in 1988.

Although health issues plagued his final few years, he continued to dedicate himself to causes and give back, becoming the national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association as well as founding the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.

A tainted blood transfusion during a 1983 heart operation led Ashe to contract HIV. For the sake of his young daughter, Ashe kept his condition private but was forced to go public in 1992 after USA Today planned on publishing the story about his illness.

Again, Ashe turned his misfortune into a force for good, founding the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He spent his days raising awareness about the disease and combating misinformation.

‘We want to be able to look back and say to all concerned that we did what we had to do, when we had to do it, and with all the resources required’, Ashe said in a speech to the United Nations in December 1992.

On February 6, 1993, at the age of just 49 Ashe passed away from AIDS-related pneumonia. Thousands came to pay their respects at his funeral, to honour and remember the life of an inspirational man, who transcended the world of tennis and broke boundaries both on and off the court.