Thursday, August 18, 2022
Legend: Arthur Ashe
By Yussuf J. Simmonds (Assistant Managing Editor)
Published September 10, 2009

Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon


Ashe in Action

The Ashe Family (Camera, Arthur and Jeanne)

Ashe on the court


Ashe with Nelson Mandela


“His toughest challenge was not on the tennis court but in the court of real life”

Responding to tough challenges was a natural part of Arthur Ashe’s life; and though he became a professional tennis player, not all of his challenges and victories were on the tennis court. Ashe was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, where he faced “closed doors,” was shut out of segregated restaurants, parks and tennis courts and banned from many “prestigious” white tournaments–that were obviously not so prestigious.

Born Arthur Robert Ashe on July 10, 1943, his battles off the court were socially significant and personally memorable with lasting, positive effects towards the advancement of human relations, raising and spotlighting the deadly AIDS virus. When Ashe was born segregation was not a distant norm, it was present–he was born in the delivery room of a segregated medical center. His mother, Mattie Cordell Ashe, was his first school teacher and his father, Arthur Ashe, Sr. spent a lot of time away from home, working. He worked two and sometime three jobs to be able to take care of his family typical for a Black family man during that time in the South.

His mother died when young Ashe was just six years old and circumstances forced him to live with his father on the grounds of the suburban Brookfield Park where he (Ashe Sr.) worked as a caretaker. There were four tennis courts in the park and at an early age, Ashe was introduced to tennis even though his skin color would sometimes limit his use of some of the area’s court. He began getting lessons from Ronald Charity, a college student and the best Black tennis player in Richmond at that time. Charity taught lessons at Brookfield Park during the summers and took Ashe under his wing. With that specialized attention, Ashe sharpened his skills. He taught the fundamentals of holding the racket properly, forehand, backhand and service; and they would often play matches as a team. Thereafter Ashe would enter all-black tournament, usually winning, as his strokes became stronger and more defined.

As he would enter more tournaments, Ashe was known to grandstand and began to be noticed. At Charity’s request, Dr. R. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, a retired Black physician, attended a match at Virginia Union University in which Ashe played; he came within the purview of Johnson who had a strong affinity for the game. Johnson resided in nearby Lynchburg, Virginia, and had a private court at his home where he had also trained other tennis prodigies including Althea Gibson. His teaching methods were overwhelmingly rigid in style with a touch of military discipline and he stressed honesty, integrity and respect in his students’ pursuit of excellence in sportsmanship. This accommodation allowed Ashe and other African American tennis students to circumvent some of the indignities they otherwise would have had to tolerate by having to travel great distances to play with White youths in “acceptable” forums/venues.

During his years as an amateur tennis player, Ashe continued his regimen at Maggie L. Walker High School, Richmond. By 15, he was ranked as the fifth in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association in his age range. One of the high school tennis advocates at Sumner High School, St. Louis, Missouri, intervened with the school’s athletic director and wooed Ashe to Sumner. Ashe, Sr. agonized over his son going away to school but eventually succumbed to the advantages that his son stood to gain in pursuit of his future tennis ambitions. In 1960, Ashe competed at Forest Hills, New York, while at Sumner and later on went to Miami Beach to Compete in the Orange Bowl Juniors singles tournament. He was the first African American junior to receive a U.S. Lawn Tennis Association national ranking and was also written up in Sports Illustrated, the nationally-recognized sports magazine. Ashe received his high school diploma from Sumner High in 1961 and then returned to Richmond.

His post-graduate triumphs included USLTA National Inter-scholastic singles, the National Jaycees and National Juniors tournaments while waiting to go to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) where we had been awarded a tennis scholarship. That same year, Ashe became the first Black player ever selected to represent the U.S. Davis Cup Team. As a freshman, he was in the number three slot on the UCLA team, however his academic grades took a beating. While in high school, Ashe had always been an “A” student; he was considered a pacesetter at Maggie Walker and Sumner. It took him some time to adjust to the change in environment at UCLA, but only in academics. His tennis skills never faltered.

Ashe’s number one priority at UCLA was trying to upgrade his academic work load while keeping his tennis game intact; his world revolved around those responsibilities during his first year. But he was fully cognizant that his choices on and off the court were being viewed in a racial context, as representing Black people in general. It was the time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were fighting for equality on all fronts for Blacks and some of his advances were direct results of those efforts.

However, not all of his advancements were smooth; there were bumps in the road along the way. Ashe experienced a taste of prejudice at the Balboa Club in Orange County. The club hosted a tennis tournament of college teams including UCLA but did not include Ashe because it did not admit Blacks. Ashe prevailed upon the team to compete despite his exclusion because he knew that UCLA would be victorious, and they were. (Ironically, after Ashe became the number professional tennis player in the country, Balboa extended him an invitation which he cheerfully refused).

He later recalled, “It seemed best to concentrate on the two reasons I was at UCLA. I wanted a good education and I wanted to play the best tennis of my life. Actually, the reasons were probably reversed at the time. I wanted to play great tennis and get a good education.” Ashe won the National Collegiate Athletic Association singles and was initiated into the Upsilon Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. After graduating from UCLA in 1966 with a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration, he was honored at Arthur Ashe Day ceremonies in his hometown. Later that year, he was inducted into the U.S. Army.

During his military service, Ashe became assistant tennis coach at the military academy. He used his ROTC training that he had acquired at UCLA to advance rapidly in boot camp. He served for two years, working with other players, but he felt somewhat frustrated having to juggle the army duties that he wanted versus those that he was doing. Before leaving, he had attained the rank of second lieutenant.

In 1968, he won the U.S. Amateur Championships and the inaugural U.S. Open. In trying to project his future as a professional, Ashe began to explore and compare the earnings of tennis pros’ earnings with the prestige and popularity of the sport. He helped to form the Association of Tennis Professionals and served as its president. And when two African American athletes displayed their protest against the U.S. at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Ashe identified closely with the protest. Following that incident, he was denied a visa to compete in the South African Open by that country’s government. The denial energized him and heightened his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement that was growing in the U.S.

He turned professional in 1969 becoming a top money winner and ranked number one as a co-equal with another player. The next year, Ashe won the Australian Open title in Melbourne followed by the French Open doubles titles. Despite the denial of a visa, he became the first African American to reach the South African Open final held in Johannesburg in 1973. The Zulus called him “Sipho” which meant a gift from God. Many criticized him for playing in South Africa since many athletes had boycotted the apartheid country.

His anti-apartheid activities were rivaling his tennis achievements. Though mild in manner, slim, bookish and bespectacled in his appearance, his militant efforts in the furtherance of social causes were becoming legendary–preferring information to insurrection–alongside the fact that on the court, he was the only Black man to win Wimbledon (1975), and the U.S. and Australian Opens. He preferred King’s approach to solving racial problems rather than the more radical approach of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

In February 1977, Ashe married Jeanne Moutoussamy, a photographer whom he had met four months earlier. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, an ordained minister, performed the ceremony at the United Nations chapel in New York. The couple adopted one child, a daughter; she was named Camera in honor of her mother’s profession. (She was born in December 1986).

When Ashe won the men’s singles at Wimbledon, he was the only African American to accomplish that feat beating the top contender in the final. About the same time, he published his autobiography, “Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion.” He underwent quadruple heart surgery after suffering a heart attack in 1979 which slowed his game somewhat. This event raised the public awareness of heart disease in view of his high level of fitness as an athlete. He retired from profession competition in 1980 and the following year became captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team. He kept active writing for Time magazine, became a sports commentator for ABC Sports and founded the National Junior Tennis League.

Ashe underwent double bypass surgery in 1983, his second heart surgery. This slowed his activities even further. However, his protest activities continued; he was a member of a delegation of African Americans who visited South Africa urging change in that country’s political and racial systems. (It led to the eventual release of Nelson Mandela in 1990). Ashe was arrested in January 1985 for protesting in front of the South African Embassy in Washington D.C. in an anti apartheid rally. Then later in the year, he resigned as Davis Cup captain and was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Tragedy struck in 1988 when Ashe found out that he had contacted HIV during the blood transfusions he had received during on of his heart surgeries. He went public with the announcement after reports surfaced that it was about to be published in USA Today. Still he carried on protesting for civil and human rights. He addressed the United Nations General Assembly on World AIDS Day and was arrested again in 1992 outside the White House protesting against the unfair treatment of Haitian refugees. At the end of 1992, he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, was name sportsman of the year by Sports Illustrated and finished writing his memoir, Days of Grace. He died in February 1993 from complications from AIDS.

Ashe was the first Black man to win a Grand Slam event and during his career, he won three. He was one of two Black men to win the Grand Slam singles title.

After his death, his body lay in State at the Governor’s mansion in his home state of Virginia. (The governor, Douglas Wilder, was the first elected Black governor in the U.S.). The city of Richmond honored him with a life size statue on Monument Avenue and the U.S. postal service released a postage stamp in his memory, the first to ever to have been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In his honor, UCLA named The Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center in 1997.

Categories: Legends

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