ARTHUR ROBERT ASHE JR.
In 1968, the first year amateurs and professionals could compete against each other in major events, the US Open was won by Arthur Ashe, a man who enjoyed a storied career between the lines and a dignified life as an ambassador of equality and goodwill; a life that tragically ended in 1993 after he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion following heart bypass surgery.
Younger generations of tennis fans may only recognize Ashe’s name as the one that adorns the stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, NY, site of the US Open, or that starting in 1993 the USTA has kicked off the tournament with Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, a remembrance and celebration of the sport’s most elegant and thoughtful ambassador. Ashe rose from segregation and racial roadblocks to become the first African-American male to win the US Open (1968), Australian Open (1970), and Wimbledon (1975). In 1963 he was the first African-American chosen to play Davis Cup for the United States, and in ten years representing his country, helped the US win five championships (1963, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1978).
Ashe was much more than a storied tennis player; he was an activist, author, educator, and a tireless campaigner for civil rights and racial equality, not only in the United States but worldwide, particularly against the apartheid systems of South Africa. “Arthur was a voice for all the minorities, and that goes for women, too,” Pam Shriver told the New York Times in Ashe’s obituary. “He brought a level of conscience to the game, whether he was speaking on South Africa or inner-city minorities or exclusionary policies anyplace. Arthur’s influence on tennis didn’t fade after he left the sport.” Further evidence of Ashe’s convictions came in 1972, when helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the organization that unionized the professional tour and protected the interests of its players.
On sunny August 29th in 1968, Ashe, then 25, became an unlikely US Open champion amongst a field that included four Australians who were all seeded ahead of him: Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe. Having won the United States Amateur Championships over Bob Lutz at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston earlier that summer earned Ashe the No. 5 seed. He was under no pressure to win the championship; that was reserved for the Aussies. At the time, he was in the midst of a three-year Army stint, and expectations were low. In the finals, Ashe defeated an unforeseen counterpart in Dutchman Tom Okker, seeded No. 8, who was also on a magical run. Ashe had won his previous three matches in straight sets, and had secured a bit of luck when his quarterfinal opponent Cliff Drysdale upset Laver in the fourth round. The final played out in five-marathon sets – the first five-setter Ashe faced at the Open – 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. The cornerstone of Ashe’s game, serving and volleying, was magnificent that afternoon. He pounded 26 aces against Okker and his whipping backhand was flawless – angled perfectly on crosscourt shots and crisply executed at the net.
“Arthur could beat any player on a given day or he could lose to a bad player if he was mishitting,” recalled his Davis Cup captain Donald Dell. “All the elements fell in place. There were a lot of upsets and he just took advantage of the opportunity.”
Ashe had become the first American to win at Forest Hills since Tony Trabert in 1955, but the victory was somewhat bittersweet. At the time, Ashe was still an amateur and receiving a per diem as a member of the Davis Cup team, meaning he couldn’t accept the $14,000 prize, which went to Okker. If there was any solace for Ashe after missing out on his first professional paycheck, on December 12, 1968 he became the No. 1 ranked U.S. player by the United States Lawn Tennis Association. He had a stellar 1968 season, helping to lead the U.S. Davis Cup team to the championship with a decisive 4-1 victory over Australia, which ended a five-year losing drought.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Ashe began playing tennis at age 7 on courts at Brookfield Park, a segregated playground adjacent to his home. Seven years later he found a mentor in Hall of Famer Dr. Robert Johnson, who for two decades had assisted black tennis prodigies, including Althea Gibson. Even as a youth, Ashe was a cerebral player and Johnson’s guidance was instrumental on how his pupil comported himself on the court. His on-court etiquette was among the finest in tennis history. His high school interscholastic career started at Maggie L. Walter High School, but was completed at Summer High School in St. Louis, where he could face stronger competition.
As the No. 5 ranked junior in the country, Ashe won the National Junior Indoor Championship in 1962 and was awarded a full scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. As a student at UCLA, Ashe attracted the attention of both Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura, who helped refine his game and encourage experimentation. He won both the NCAA Division I singles and doubles championships in 1965, defeating Mike Belkin of the University of Miami, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 in singles and teaming with Ian Crookenden to capture the doubles title. With Ashe in tow, the Bruins won the 1965 NCCA team championship.
Starting in 1959, when he made his major tournament debut at the U.S. Nationals, Ashe played twenty years, retiring in 1979. He was a fixture at the U.S. Nationals/US Open, playing 18 times and earning a 53-17 record, the best of the four majors. He was a semifinalist in 1965 (losing to champion Manuel Santana 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4) and a finalist in 1972 (losing to Ilie Năstase in a sensational match that saw Năstase erase a 2-1 sets deficit, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3).
Ashe only competed at the Australian Nationals/Open six times, but became the first African-American to win the title in 1970, defeating five Aussies, including Dick Crealy in the final, 6-4, 9-7, 6-2. He earned his semifinal win when fellow American Dennis Ralston retired down 2-1 sets in the fourth. Ashe also was a finalist in 1966, 1967, and 1971, losing to Roy Emerson the first two years and Rosewall in 1971 as the defending champion. The red clay at Roland Garros was not especially suited for Ashe’s game; he was a quarterfinalist twice (1970, 1971), but the fast grass at Wimbledon was a surface that appealed to his attacking, serve-and-volley style.
Ashe had been a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 1968 and 1969, and when he defeated No. 1 seed and heavy favorite Jimmy Connors in 1975, it was a throwback to his US Open championship run seven years earlier. The Wimbledon field was stacked with Connors, Rosewall, Björn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, and Năstase, all seeded higher. Ashe, nearing his 32nd birthday, had never defeated Connors in three previous meetings and was seeking his first Wimbledon title. His draw became more favorable as the fortnight progressed, Năstase out in the second round, Rosewall a fourth round casualty, and Vilas ousted in the quarterfinals. He upset Borg in the quarterfinals and needed to prevail in five long sets against Roche in the semifinals. The final against Connors saw Ashe play perhaps his finest strategic and athletic match in a huge upset, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. His lateral movement on the baseline that afternoon was swift, yet controlled; Connors had few openings to slip balls past his opponent. Ashe sliced his backhand low and deep, mixed up his pace, placed lobs effectively; instead of booming big first serves, he sliced his serve wide to both Connors’s backhand and forehand and charged the net. His volleys were on point and the victory ranks as one of Wimbledon’s biggest upsets. “I always thought I could win,” Ashe said afterwards. “I was pretty confident. I had been playing well."
The years that Ashe won his upset-laden major singles titles were his finest. In 1968 he won 10 of 22 tournaments he entered and compiled a 72-10 match record. In 1975 he was even better – winning eight of 26 tournaments with a 97-18 record. Ashe defeated Borg at the Dallas WCT Finals, 3–6, 6–4, 6–4, 6–0.
He won a pair of major doubles titles, the first at the French in 1971 alongside Marty Riessen in a lengthy 6-8, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 11-9 victory over fellow Americans Tom Gorman and Stan Smith and a second in straight sets at the 1977 Australian with partner Tony Roche.
Ashe spent ten years ranked in the world’s Top 10, rising to No. 2 in 1976.
In 1979, at age 36, Ashe suffered his first heart attack that required bypass surgery and led to his retirement. He suffered a second heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery in 1983, which he widely believed led to him contracting HIV in 1988. The prideful Ashe didn’t disclose he had the disease until April 1992, wanting to make the announcement on his terms, but news leaks forced his announcement. At the end of 1992, Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year, and a year later he created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.
Ashe’s health issues ended his storied tennis career, but jumpstarted his philanthropic, humanitarian, civic, and activist endeavors, which occupied his life for a decade. In 1988, he helped develop inner-city tennis programs and co-founded the National Junior Tennis League in New York City, Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. That same year he published his three-volume 1,600-page treatise A Hard Road to Glory: A history of the African-American athlete. He earned an Emmy for co-writing the television adaptation of the book.
The soft-spoken but highly principled Ashe has been showered with honors, tributes, and accolades in life and death. Among the most prominent came in 1993 when he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. ESPN’s ESPY Awards presents the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to a person in the sports world that exhibits courage in the face of adversity. His alma mater, UCLA opened The Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center in 1997. In 2007, USA Today listed Ashe as one of the Most Inspiring People of the Last 25 Years.
On his website, Ashe is quoted as saying, “Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner. Even if you’re behind, a sustained look of control and confidence can give you a mental edge that results in victory.”
Source: Tennis Hall of Fame