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date: 12 July 2020

Ashe, Arthurfree

(10 July 1943–06 February 1993)
  • McKay Jenkins

Ashe, Arthur (10 July 1943–06 February 1993), tennis player, author, and political activist, was born Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Arthur Ashe, Sr., a police officer, and Mattie Cunningham. Tall and slim as a young boy, Ashe was forbidden by his father from playing football; he took up tennis instead on the segregated playground courts at Brookfield Park, near his home. By the time he was ten he came under the tutelage of a local tennis fan and physician from Lynchburg, Walter Johnson. Johnson had previously nurtured Althea Gibson, who would become the first African American to win Wimbeldon, in 1957 and 1958, and his second protégé would prove no less successful.

Johnson was an exacting coach; he had his charges practice hitting tennis balls with broom handles to develop their hand-eye coordination. But his lessons extended beyond tennis; he also helped the young Ashe navigate an often hostile, segregated South. Johnson and Ashe’s father (his mother died when he was six) instructed Arthur in the manners, discipline, and grace that would mark his carriage within and without the nearly all-white tennis world. When Arthur was fifteen, Johnson tried to enter him in an all-white junior tournament sponsored by the Middle Atlantic Lawn Tennis Association and held at Richmond’s Country Club of Virginia, but the club refused his application. As a result, Ashe, who was ranked fifth in his age group in the country, was unable to earn a ranking from his own region.

In 1958, Ashe reached the semifinals in the under-15 division of the junior national championships. Soon afterward a tennis coach from St. Louis, Richard Hudlin, offered to take Ashe under his wing, and after completing his junior year in high school in Richmond, Ashe accepted. He moved in with Hudlin and his family and completed his schooling at Sumner High School in St. Louis, the alma mater of African-American comedian and activist Dick Gregory. In 1960 and 1961 Ashe won the U.S. junior indoor singles title.

After graduating from high school, Ashe accepted a tennis scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he became an All-American, led his college team to the NCAA national championship, won the U.S. Hard Court Championship, and was named to the U.S. Davis Cup team. While at UCLA he also spent time training with tennis legends Pancho Segura and Pancho Gonzalez, who helped him develop the powerful serve and volley game that would become, along with his sheer athleticism, Ashe’s trademark.

In 1965, while still in college, Ashe was ranked third in the world, and he beat Australian Roy Emerson in five sets to win the Queensland championships at Brisbane, Australia. Graduating from UCLA in 1966 with a degree in business administration, he entered a Reserve Officer Training Corps camp and finished second in his platoon for overall achievement at the end of the six-week course. He attained the rank of first lieutenant, serving in the military from 1967 to 1969. During this time he continued playing tennis, winning the U.S. Clay Court Championships in 1967. In 1968, while still an amateur and still in the U.S. Army, he defeated Tom Okker to win the first U.S. Open, one of the two most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, and with this victory he became ranked first in the world. Numerous titles would follow, including his place on three victorious Davis Cup teams, the World Championships of Tennis in 1975 (a year in which he again became the world’s highest ranked player), and two additional Grand Slam championships—the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975, where he became the first African American male to win at the All-England Club, beating Jimmy Connors. He also won the doubles titles at the French, Australian, and Wimbledon championships.

John McPhee, whose book Levels of the Game (1969) chronicled Ashe’s match with Clark Graebner, his opponent in the semifinal of the 1968 U.S. Open, considered Ashe a competitive genius. “Even in very tight moments, other players thought he was toying with them,” McPhee wrote later in an appreciation piece in the New Yorker after Ashe’s death.

They rarely knew what he was thinking. They could not tell if he was angry. It was maddening, sometimes, to play against him. Never less than candid, he said that what he liked best about himself on a tennis court was his demeanor: ‘What it is is controlled cool, in a way. Always have the situation under control, even if losing. Never betray an inward sense of defeat.’ And of course he never did—not in the height of his athletic power, not in the statesmanship of the years that followed, and not in the endgame of his existence.

Over the course of his career Ashe earned more than $1.5 million, becoming the sport’s first black millionaire and one of his era’s most visible African-American athletes. He was hired by several companies, including Coca-Cola and Philip Morris, to promote their products, and he worked for ABC television and Home Box Office as a sports commentator. Ashe married Jeanne Marie Moutoussamy in 1977, and they had one daughter, Camera Elizabeth. In 1979, at the age of thirty-six, Ashe suffered a myocardial infarction, which forced him to undergo bypass surgery and retire from playing competitive tennis. However, one year after his operation he became the first and only African American to be named captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, a position he held until 1985. Under his leadership the team won the international competition in 1981. In 1985 he became the first African American male elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Throughout his career and afterward Ashe spent considerable time and energy working for civil and human rights. He wrote eloquently about his complex position as a world-renowned success in a field dominated by whites; even as his moderation appealed to whites, he was occasionally criticized by more vocal black activists. “There were times, in fact, when I felt a burning sense of shame that I was not with other blacks—and whites—standing up to the fire hoses and the police dogs, the truncheons, bullets and bombs that cut down such martyrs as Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and the little girls in that bombed church in Birmingham, Ala.,” he was quoted as saying in The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present ([1993], p. 363). “As my fame increased, so did my anguish. I knew that many blacks were proud of my accomplishments on the tennis court. But I also knew that many others, especially many of my own age or younger, did not bother to hide their indifference to me and my trophies or even their disdain and contempt for me.”

In 1973, after three years of trying, Ashe had received an invitation to play in the previously all-white South African Open; twelve years later the longtime friend of the still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela was arrested in South Africa for protesting apartheid. In 1992 he joined a group of protesters who were arrested in Washington, D.C., for objecting to the George Bush administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees.

Always a bookish, thoughtful man, Ashe cultivated a second career as a writer and sports historian; through his research, he managed to trace his own roots back ten generations on his father’s side to a woman who in 1735 was brought from West Africa to Yorktown, Virginia, on the slave ship Doddington. Ashe’s benchmark three-volume history of black athletes in America, A Hard Road to Glory, was published in 1988.

Ashe’s concern for fairness and human dignity also extended beyond race. In 1974 he helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals, a player’s union, and served as president until 1979. He later became a board member of the United States Tennis Association; chairman of the American Heart Association; and a board member for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Ashe suffered a number of serious health problems that ended his playing career but barely seemed to slow him down. He had a heart attack in 1979, one bypass surgery six months later, and a second in 1983. He had emergency brain surgery in 1988, and after this operation rumors about his infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, began to spread. Although he kept his illness secret for nearly a decade, Ashe was forced to admit his diagnosis publicly when on 7 April 1992 the newspaper USA Today threatened to print the story as soon as it could be confirmed. Because Ashe did not officially confirm his illness himself, he was able to put off publication of the story for a day and to personally inform friends, family members, and health officials of his condition. The day after USA Today’s initial phone call on 8 April, Ashe held a press conference to break the news himself, reporting that the virus had been transmitted during blood transfusions associated with his second heart operation in 1983. The event prompted both a worldwide outpouring of grief and a squall of commentary about the conflict between the press’s responsibility to report the news and an individual’s right to privacy. That year he helped raise $15 million for the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, and in part for this work he was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.

Ashe’s death in New York City provoked a sense of loss that extended far beyond boundaries of the tennis world or the borders of the United States. A memorial service held at the Richmond governor’s mansion of Douglas Wilder, the first African-American governor of Virginia, attracted thousands of admirers from around the world. Wilder said that Ashe’s “leadership may not be confined to athletics and sports alone, for he was totally committed to improving the lives of those yet to enjoy the full fruition of rights and opportunities in this country” (New York Times, 7 Feb. 1993).

Ashe’s passing, like his life, was mourned by many who saw in his example an unusual dignity and elegance, even in the face of a terrible disease. “Why, when we knew Arthur Ashe’s health was precarious, did the news of his death from pneumonia last Saturday hit us like a ball peen hammer between the eyes?” wrote Kenny Moore in a cover story in Sports Illustrated. “Why did the announcement of this gentle man’s passing force even the raucous Madison Square Garden crowd at the Riddick Bowe–Michael Dokes fight into unwonted reflection, never quite to return to the fray? In part, surely, we reel because, even with AIDS and a history of heart attacks, Ashe didn’t seem to be sick. He, of all men, hid things well. His gentility shielded us from appreciating his risk” (15 Feb. 1993, p. 12).

Bibliography

Ashe also wrote Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion, with Frank Deford (1975); Off the Court, with Neil Amdur (1981); and an autobiography, Days of Grace, with Arnold Rampersad (1993). Useful source material on Ashe can be found in any number of trade tennis magazines published during his lifetime, including Tennis and World Tennis.