Ashe, Arthur (1943–1993)
Arthur Ashe was the first great African American male tennis player, achieving success in the 1960s and 1970s in a sport that long had been identified with upper-middle-class white society. He was a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion and the winner of 11 Grand Slam tournament titles and seven Davis Cup championships. A versatile, graceful player who conducted himself as a gentleman on and off the court, Ashe was also a social activist. He fought racism in tennis and in other areas, promoted higher standards for students seeking athletic scholarships, and wrote movingly about the African American experience in sport.
Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. His mother, Mattie Cunningham, died when he was six years old. His father Arthur Ashe, Sr., was a park caretaker. As a resident of the Old South, Ashe lived in a racially segregated society. He attended segregated schools and played tennis on segregated courts, where he could not play a white opponent in public. Ronald Charity, a part-time playground instructor, noticed Ashe's talent on the court and began working with him. Later, Ashe was coached by Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, an African American who trained young black players at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia. Johnson had established the American Tennis Association, which organized tournaments for African American players.
As a teenager, Ashe won several titles in the boys’ division, starting in 1955. In 1959, he traveled to New York City to compete in the Eastern Junior and Boys Championships of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association— a predominantly white organization—at Forest Hills, New York. He was seeded number one, but lost to Hugh Lynch III of Maryland. Lynch, who was white, and Ashe would not have been able to play one another in a Southern tournament, but the association had opened its national tournament to African Americans.
During his career in tennis, Ashe often was the first or the only African American man in tournaments and other competitions. (In women's tennis, Althea Gibson was the first African American to win the U.S. and British women's championships in 1957.) In 1963, Ashe became the first black player to be named to a U.S. Davis Cup team. He considered it an honor to compete for his country and became a fixture on the Davis Cup teams, participating on ten squads between 1963 and 1978, with a brilliant record of 28-6. Also in 1963, Ashe entered the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He became the NCAA men's singles champion in 1965 and led the school to the NCAA championship. By this time, he was ranked in the top ten in the world. He graduated from UCLA in 1966 with a degree in business. During the next two years, he fulfilled his military obligation by serving in the U.S. Army.
In 1968, Ashe won the U.S. Amateur Championship and then entered the U.S. Open, which included both amateurs and professionals. Seeded fifth, he reached the finals, where he defeated Tom Okker in five sets. As an amateur, he received $280 for his expenses, while Okker, a professional, received $14,000. After his victory, Ashe was ranked number one in the world.
During the late 1960s, the tennis world began to change as more world-class players gave up their amateur status to turn professional. Ashe turned professional in 1969, and he soon began to take an interest in the plight of professional tennis players. While the sport was attracting large crowds and television audiences, the players’ share of the revenues was very small. In 1969, he was a founding member of the organization that would become the Association of Tennis Professionals, which worked to protect the interests of professional players.
Ashe captured the Australian Open singles title in 1970, but in the next few years, he failed to win any of the four Grand Slam tournaments—the Australian, French, British, and U.S. Opens. In 1975, however, he played through the British Open field at Wimbledon all the way to the finals, where he met the young sensation Jimmy Connors. Although Ashe had lost to Connors in three previous matches, in a surprise upset, Ashe defeated Connors convincingly: 6–1, 6–1, 5–7, 6–4. By year's end, Ashe had earned $338,337 in prize money and again was ranked number one in the world.
Like other top players of the 1970s, Ashe earned additional income by endorsing tennis equipment and clothing. He worked with AMF Head, which created the Arthur Ashe Competition Racquet and later the Arthur Ashe Page 60 | Top of ArticleCompetition 2 model, an aluminum and fiberglass racket that Ashe helped design and develop. He also signed contracts with Le Coq Sportif, a subsidiary of Adidas that manufactured a shoe model named for him, and endorsed Catalina Martin of Los Angeles, a company that introduced a new line of tennis wear. By 1973, Ashe was conducting tennis clinics for American Express and Coca-Cola, working in minority recruitment for Aetna Insurance, and providing tennis commentary for ABC Sports.
Health problems began to hinder Ashe's career in 1977, when he had calcium deposits removed from his left heel. That year, he married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy; they had two daughters. Two years later, at age 35, he reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and advanced to the final of the Grand Prix Masters.
Following a heart attack that led to quadruple bypass surgery in 1979, Ashe retired in 1980. He later became the national campaign chairperson for the American Heart Association.
Ashe served as a nonplaying Davis Cup captain from 1980 to 1985; during that time, the team won the title in 1981 and 1982. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, in his first year of eligibility, having won 33 tournaments, 800 matches, and three Grand Slams. In 1992, he was the first athlete to be named by Sports Illustrated as Sportsman of the Year after retirement.
Off the Court
Off the court, Ashe was outspoken on social issues and the concerns facing professional tennis. He played a benefit match to raise money for the Black Economic Union and Food First relief program in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He served as president of the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1974–1975.
Ashe also became involved in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In 1970, he requested a visa from South Africa to play in that country's open tournament. When the request was denied because of his race, he called for the expulsion of South Africa from the Davis Cup. In 1973, Ashe decided to challenge apartheid by playing in South Africa, believing that it was crucial for black South Africans to see a black tennis professional. He demanded total integration at the match site, Ellis Park in Johannesburg, and insisted that he be recognized as a black man rather than be given “honorary white” status, a common practice at the time for foreign blacks visiting the country.
Despite his opposition to apartheid, Ashe rejected the blackballing of white South African tennis players. In 1985, when he was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., while protesting apartheid, Ashe admitted that he had erred in traveling to South Africa earlier in his career. He was arrested a second time outside the White House, during a protest against the George H.W. Bush administration's policy toward Haitian refugees in 1992.
In addition to writing a number of articles for tennis magazines and business newsletters, Ashe penned a biweekly column for the Washington Post, and he also wrote several books, including Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion (1975); an introspective memoir, Days of Grace (1993); and A Hard Road to Glory (1988), a three-volume encyclopedic history of blacks in sports. In the early 1980s, he taught an honors course, “Education and the Black Athlete,” at Florida Memorial College (now Florida Memorial University) in Miami.
Ashe waged his final battle against AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion performed when he underwent heart surgery in 1983. Ashe made a public announcement that he had AIDS, but maintained his right to privacy. Once again, he became a catalyst for public debate. He worked as an activist for public awareness of HIV/AIDS, and addressed the United Nations on World AIDS Day, requesting increased funding for AIDS research. In 1992, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation to fund AIDS research, became a spokesperson for improved health care, and continued to work as a broadcaster for HBO at Wimbledon.
Ashe died of AIDS complications on February 6, 1993. At the time of his death, he was helping former United States Tennis Association president David Markin carry out the expansion of the National Tennis Center, which had replaced Forest Hills as the home of world-class tennis. The new stadium was named in his honor. After his death, Ashe was widely honored for his contributions to the sport. In 1996, a 12-foot (3.6-meter) statue of Ashe, Page 61 | Top of Articlesculpted by Paul De Pasquale, was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, where he had once been excluded from interracial competition. ESPN established the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and the U.S. Postal Service honored Ashe with a commemorative stamp in 2005.
Sundiata A. Djata
Ashe, Arthur, and Arnold Rampersad. Days of Grace: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Ashe, Arthur, with Frank Deford. Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Djata, Sundiata A. Blacks at the Net: Black Achievement in the History of Tennis. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
Martin, Marvin. Arthur Ashe: Of Tennis and the Human Spirit. New York: Franklin Watts, 1999.
Steins, Richard. Arthur Ashe: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.
Towle, Mike, comp. I Remember Arthur Ashe: Memories of a True Tennis Pioneer and Champion of Social Causes by the People Who Knew Him. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001.