Arthur Robert Ashe Jr

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Arthur Robert Ashe Jr.

World champion athlete, social activist, teacher, and charity worker, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. (1943-1993) was the first African American player to break the color barrier in the international sport of tennis at the highest level of the game. After early retirement from sports due to heart surgery in 1979, Ashe used his unique sportsman profile and legendary poise to promote human rights, education, and public health.

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. He was a member of the eleventh identifiable generation of the Ashe family and a direct descendant of a West African slave. The family line reached back to ownership by Samuel Ashe, an early governor of North Carolina. When Ashe was six years old his mother, Mattie Cordell Cunningham Ashe, died of heart disease at the age of 27.

Ashe's father nurtured both Arthur and his younger brother, Johnnie, with love as a strict disciplinarian. He worked as a caretaker and special policeman for a park named Brook Field in suburban North Richmond. Young Arthur lived on the grounds with four tennis courts, a pool, and three baseball diamonds. This was the passkey to his development as a future star athlete. His early nickname was "Skinny" or "Bones," and he grew to six feet one inch with a lean physique. He was right-handed.

Ashe as Amateur Tennis Player

R. Walter ("Whirlwind") Johnson, an African American general physician and tennis patron from Lynchburg, Virginia, opened his home in the summers to tennis prospects, including the great Althea Gibson several years earlier. Johnson used military-style discipline to teach tennis skills and also stressed his special code of sportsmanship: deference, sharp appearance, and "no cheating at any time."

Ashe attended Richmond City Public Schools. He received an honorary diploma from Maggie L. Walker High School in 1961. After success as a junior player in the American Tennis Association (ATA, for African American players), he was the first African American junior to receive a United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) national ranking. When he won the National Interscholastics in 1960, it was the first USLTA national title to be won by an African American in the South. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) awarded him a full scholarship.

In 1963 Ashe became the first African American player to win the U.S. Men's Hardcourt championships. He also became the first African American to be named to a U.S. Junior Davis Cup team and played for ten years (1963-1970, 1975, 1976, 1978). (Earlier he could not make the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team because he was denied entry in two of five major events, in Kentucky and Virginia.) He became the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) singles and doubles champion, leading the UCLA Bruins to the NCAA title in 1965. He was All-American from 1963 to 1965.

A year later Ashe graduated from UCLA in the ROTC program with a bachelor's degree in business administration. After serving in the Army for two years, during which he was assigned time for tennis competitions, Ashe introduced a grassroots tennis program into U.S. innercities in 1968. This effort was the forerunner of today's national U.S. Tennis Association/National Junior Tennis League (USTA/ NJTL) program, with 500 chapters running programs for 150,000 kids.

Ashe as Professional Tennis Player

Two events changed Ashe's life direction in the late 1960s. The first, in 1968, was a proposed boycott by African American athletes at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The boycott issue partly involved a protest against racial segregation, or "apartheid," in the Republic of South Africa. Ashe identified closely with such discrimination. The second event was in tennis. He was the first African American USLTA amateur champion and won the first U.S. Open Tennis Championships at Forest Hills, a new prize-money national event. The USLTA ranked him Co-Number One (with Rod Laver). His support changed from $28 per diem as a U.S. Davis Cup player to becoming a top money-winner when he turned professional in 1969. He took the Australian Open title in Melbourne in 1970. In 1971 he won the French Open doubles title with Marty Riessen. The next year he helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

In 1973 Ashe became the first African American to reach the South African Open finals held in Johannesburg and was the doubles winner with Tom Okker of The Netherlands. Black South Africa gave Ashe a name that day: They called him "Sipho," meaning "a gift from God" in Zulu.

The year 1975 was Ashe's best and most consistent season. He was the first and only African American male player to win the "Gentleman's Singles" title in an historic victory on center court at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon. Ashe dethroned the defending champion, Jimmy Connors. President Lyndon Johnson's comment was "Brooke is the only Senator we got; and Marshall the only justice; and Ashe the only tennis player." In 1975 Ashe was ranked Number One in the world, won a singles title in Dallas, and was named ATP Player of the Year. He played as a member of the U.S. Aetna World Cup team, 1970 to 1976 and 1979.

Due to injuries, he sat out most of 1977. Wearing a footcast, Ashe (33) married Jeanne Moutoussamy (25), a professional photographer and television graphic artist. A decade later the couple had a daughter, Camera Elizabeth.

With Tony Roche, Ashe won the Australian Open doubles title in 1977. He almost defeated John McEnroe in the Masters final at Madison Square Garden in January 1979 and was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in the summer, before a heart attack soon after the tournament ended his legendary career. After his quadruple bypass heart surgery, Ashe had to announce his retirement from competitive tennis.

Ashe as International Role Model

As his first post-retirement venture Ashe served as Davis Cup captain from 1981 to 1985. He was only the second captain in over 30 years to lead the U.S. team to consecutive victories, 1981 and 1982.

His new life was a rebirth with many directions. Ashe's Davis Cup campaigns, his protests against apartheid in South Africa, and his controversial support of higher academic standards for all athletes received much media attention. But he actually spent most of his time quietly dealing with the challenges of the "real world" through public speaking, teaching, writing, business, and voluntary public service.

In 1983 he had double bypass surgery. Ashe became national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association and the only nonmedical member of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Advisory Council. In the late 1970s he had become a consultant to Aetna Life & Casualty Company. He was made a board member in 1982. He represented minority concerns and, later, the causes of the sick.

Ashe developed social programs such as the ABC Cities program, combining tennis and academics; Safe Passage Foundation for poor children, which includes tennis training; Athletes Career Connection; the Black Tennis & Sports Foundation to assist minority athletes; and 15-Love, a substance abuse program conducted through the Eastern Tennis Association.

Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity gave him their Laurel Wreath Award in 1986. He was inducted into the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Eastern Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He became the first inductee into the U.S. Professional Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He was the first athlete without a link to the Olympic Games to be awarded the coveted Olympic Order.

Ashe spent six years and $300,000 of his own funds to write A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, a three-volume work published in 1988. Ashe won an Emmy Award for writing a television docudrama based upon his work. The research effort also earned him honorary doctorates from such universities as Virginia Union, Princeton, Dartmouth, Virginia Common-wealth, and South Carolina.

After brain surgery in 1988 came the shocking discovery that he had been infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. Doctors traced this infection back to an unscreened blood transfusion after his second cardiac operation in 1983. To protect his family and his own privacy, he informed only a few friends and associates of his illness. But to avoid possible news reports he publicly disclosed that he was suffering from AIDS at a news conference in April 1992.

Ashe established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS as a new international organization, with half of the funds generated going to AIDS causes outside the United States. He rallied professional tennis to help raise funds and to increase public awareness of the AIDS epidemic. This foundation coordinated efforts with other groups to provide treatment to AIDS patients and to promote vital AIDS research. He addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on World AIDS Day, December 1, 1992.

Arthur Ashe died of pneumonia related to AIDS on February 6, 1993, in New York City. Mourners paid their respects as Ashe's body lay in state at the Virginia governor's mansion, at a memorial service held in St. John's Cathedral in New York City, and at the funeral at the Ashe Athletic Center in Richmond. In 1996 Ashe's hometown of Richmond, Virginia announced plans to erect a statue in his honor on Richmond's Monument Avenue. The following year, a new tennis stadium at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, was named for him. Up until his death, Ashe remained involved in tennis and sports. He served as a television commentator at tennis matches, sports consultant at tennis clinics and a columnist for the Washington Post.

Further Reading

Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion (written with Frank Deford, 1975, 1993) is a "tennis diary" written between Wimbledon 1973 and Wimbledon 1975. In 1981 he also wrote an autobiography (with Neil Amdur) dedicated to his slave ancestors, entitled Off the Court. The last autobiography, Days of Grace: A Memoir, co-authored with Arnold Rampersad, was completed by Ashe 48 hours before he died. Ashe's definitive work, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, with Kip Branch, Ocania Chalk, and Francis Harris (1988) covered African-American athletic history from ancestral homelands to the present. For an intimate view of Ashe from a family perspective, see the touching book Daddy and Me: A Photo Essay of Arthur Ashe and His Daughter Camera (1993), with photographs and words by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe. A balanced commentary by Kenny Moore, "He Did All He Could," appeared in Sports Illustrated (February 15, 1993). An article by Terry Pluto, "Statue Right of Way to Honor Ashe," appeared in the Beacon Journal (July 13, 1996). □