Happy Birthday

Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Arthur Ashe, Tennis Star and Human Rights Activist

July 10, 2010
by Denis Cummings
Arthur Ashe was one of the most accomplished tennis players of his generation and the only African-American man to win a Grand Slam title, but he is best remembered for his grace off the court, his commitment to social justice and his courageous battle with AIDS.

Arthur Ashe’s Early Days

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Va., where he would grow up in a home located inside a blacks-only playground with tennis courts. His mother died when he was 6 years old, leaving him under the care of his father, Arthur Sr., who encouraged him to excel in school and in sports.

Under the tutelage of tennis coach Walter Johnson, who had also coached Althea Gibson, Ashe blossomed into the best tennis player in his area. Growing up in segregated Richmond, he was forced to go long distances to play white players. In 1960, his senior year of high school, he moved to St. Louis to cut down on his travel time.

He became the first African-American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis title and earned a tennis scholarship to UCLA. In 1963, he became the first African-American to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team, and in 1965, he won the NCAA singles championship.

Ashe’s Tennis Career

After graduating from UCLA, Ashe joined the ROTC and was assigned to an analyst’s job in West Point so he could continue playing tennis. In 1968, he became the first amateur and the first black man to win the U.S. Open singles championship.

He put the win into historical context in a 1990 interview: “This U.S. Open victory was sandwiched among Dr. King’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the coming black boycott of the Mexico City Olympics, President Johnson saying he wouldn’t run for president, riots in the summer in Newark, L.A. … you didn’t get five minutes to breathe. Even though it was a monumental achievement for me.”

In 1975, Ashe became the first black man to win Wimbledon, defeating heavily favored defending champion Jimmy Connors in the final for the third and final Grand Slam singles title of his career.

Ashe spent much of his life fighting for change in South Africa, where the apartheid government refused to grant him a visa to play. In 1973, he was allowed to play and did so despite boycotts against South African sport. He believed that his presence could break down stereotypes, but in 1977, he realized his approach wasn’t working and joined the boycott.

“Arthur taught me the power of being able to say that you have been wrong, but you could always change direction,” wrote Richard Lapchick, one of the boycott’s leaders, for ESPN.

Dedicated to the cause, Ashe was arrested in 1985 for protesting outside South Africa’s Washington embassy. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he was asked if he wanted to meet anybody in the United States, and responded, “How about Arthur Ashe?”

Ashe would make many goodwill trips to Africa to teach tennis to African youths. Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford traveled with Ashe on one such trip in 1971. Ashe spoke of his desire to become a U.S. ambassador after his retirement.

“I have thought sometimes that I might like to be a Senator, but, let's face it: Senator Ashe from Virginia—even in 20 years that's an unlikely possibility. ... Where I can best employ my special opportunities is abroad,” he said. “We've never had a black athlete in the U.S. who can do what I have been given the chances to do.”

Ashe’s Battle With AIDS

Ashe suffered a heart attack in 1979 and retired a year later. He finished his career with 33 singles titles, including wins in the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon. He won 27 Davis Cup matches for the U.S., and captained the team for five years, starting in 1981. In 1985, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

In 1992, USA Today discovered that Ashe had AIDS, contracted from a blood transfusion after heart surgery. Ashe decided to announce his condition to the public before the paper ran the story.

He hoped to “destigmatize” the disease: “There’s no question that some of the coping and surviving mechanisms I’ve used all my life to deal with racism, I'll call on again to deal with medical discrimination,” he told Sports Illustrated. “You make sure that your facts are right and that you haven't fallen short personally. Armed with that, you take your stand.”

Ashe was named Sports Illustrated’s 1992 Sportsman of the Year. Sports Illustrated’s Kenny Moore wrote that Ashe “delights in whatever mends and perpetuates the widest community, whether it is a student’s decision to set worthy goals, a gene-splicing technique to combat HIV or a South African election open to members of all races.”

Charlie Rose interviewed Ashe in 1992 to discuss his life, career, social activism and battle with AIDS. The interview, preceded by a 1993 interview with his widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, is available on the Charlie Rose Web site.

On Feb. 6, 1993, Arthur Ashe died from AIDS-related complications. “There can be no greater gift than that of holding out hope for those who have felt hopeless. Arthur Ashe possessed that rare gift, the ability to inspire,” Ira Berkow wrote in The New York Times. “It is not stretching a point to say that his gift lives on. Few men or women leave such a legacy; Arthur Ashe was one such extraordinary human being.”

Most Recent Features