Ashe, Arthur Robert, Jr.

views updated

ASHE, Arthur Robert, Jr.

(b. 10 July 1943 in Richmond, Virginia; d. 6 February 1993 in New York City), tennis star, teacher, author, and social activist who was the first black man to win the Wimbledon tournament. Ashe was instrumental in combating racial discrimination and broadening awareness about AIDS.

Ashe was the older of two sons of Arthur Robert Ashe, Sr., a parks superintendent, and Mattie Cordell Cunningham, a homemaker. Ashe, who was of Native American, Mexican, and black heritage, grew up in a segregated area of Richmond. The Ashe family lived in a caretaker's cottage in the park supervised by his father, where as a child Ashe spent many hours engaged in athletic pursuits. At the age of seven he started playing tennis on the segregated courts near his home. His mother died when Ashe was six years old. Five years after her death, his father married Lorraine Kimbrough.

At the age of ten Ashe began taking tennis instruction from Robert Walter Johnson, a black physician who also had taught Althea Gibson, the first African American to break the color barrier in tennis, winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Ashe spent the next several summers in Lynchburg, Virginia, training for tennis. Despite his small size and slender physique, he took readily to tennis and, under Johnson's influence, developed an unswerving commitment and a cool approach to the many challenges that would face him on and off the court. At the age of seventeen Ashe was ranked among the top junior players in the country, but he could not compete in white tournaments in Virginia. In the summer of 1960 Ashe moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and lived with Richard Hudlin, a tennis instructor. He transferred from Maggie Walker High School to attend Sumner High School while continuing his tennis education. By the time he graduated he was the fifth-ranked junior tennis player nationwide and had won the American Tennis Association Junior Indoor Singles title two times.

In 1961 Ashe's outstanding academic achievements and tennis skills earned him a scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the first ever granted to an African-American tennis player. During his sophomore year, Ashe was named to the Junior Davis Cup team to represent the United States internationally. By 1963 Ashe was ranked sixth nationally among amateurs, and in 1965 he ranked second. At twenty-one, he won the U.S. Inter-collegiate Singles championship. In 1966 he graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in business administration and, in 1967, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) of the U.S. Army. Ashe continued to advance his tennis career while serving in the army, and in 1968 he won the U.S. Amateur title in Boston. Ashe came into prominence during the civil rights controversy but did not identify with the violent confrontations of the era. When he was invited to the U.S. Open tournament, Ashe waged a "refined revolution" and quietly and politely resolved to fight for racial equality at home and in South Africa. In his first Grand Slam, he defeated Tom Okker in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, New York, in 1968. Ashe was the top player in the world and became the only amateur ever to win the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open titles in the same year. He concluded his collegiate career in 1968 when he led the U.S. team to its first Davis Cup victory in five years.

In 1969, after an honorable discharge with the rank of first lieutenant, Ashe turned professional and remained among the top five players internationally until 1975. Ashe was the first African-American man ever to play professional tennis. In 1970, under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State, Ashe made a goodwill tennis tour of South Africa. The trip gave him a new understanding of racial problems facing Africa. He won his second Grand Slam title in 1970 when he captured the Australian Open singles title. In 1972 he became a cofounder of the Association of Tennis Professionals. In 1973 Ashe became the first black athlete to play in a major tournament in South Africa.

In 1975 Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors 6–1, 6–1, 5–7, 6–4 for the Wimbledon singles championship, becoming the first African-American man ever to win that title. He also won the World Championship Tennis Singles and attained the top tennis ranking in the United States. According to the sportswriter Frank Deford, it was the cap to Ashe's career and the most brilliantly orchestrated match ever played in the sport. Ashe also won at the Australian Open in 1977. In 1976 Ashe met the New York City photographer Jeanne-Marie Moutoussamy. They were married on 20 February 1977 and had one child. In 1979, when he was ranked seventh in the world, Ashe's tennis career was disrupted when he had the first of three heart attacks and underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery. In 1980 he retired from professional tennis but continued with his contributions to social causes. Ashe served as a nonplaying captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team until 1985, leading the United States to two championships. He later became a tennis commentator for Home Box Office (HBO) and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and in 1988 he started establishing tennis programs for underprivileged inner-city children. Ashe's greatest fight came in 1988, after he underwent brain surgery that revealed he had contracted AIDS from an unscreened blood transfusion during his second open-heart surgery in 1983.

In April 1992 Ashe made public his illness after USA Today threatened to announce that he had the disease. That same year, Sports Illustrated named Ashe the Sportsman of the Year, honoring him as much for his conscience, commitment, and integrity as for his tennis achievements. He became a leading spokesperson for AIDS, creating the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. Before his death Ashe wrote an acclaimed three-volume book, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete (1988). During the last five years of his life, he devoted himself to the fight against AIDS and to active opposition to South Africa's apartheid. A few months before he died, Ashe was arrested in Washington, D.C., while protesting U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees seeking asylum.

In Manayunk, Pennsylvania, a tennis club was named in Ashe's honor, and in Richmond, Virginia, a center was named the Ashe Athletic Center. Ashe also received several honorary doctorates from various institutions. He served on the board of Aetna Life and Casualty and the United States Tennis Association, and as chairman of the Black Tennis sports foundation, the American Heart Association, and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. He held corporate posts in several businesses and wrote occasional newspaper columns. As a tennis star he won thirty-three championship titles and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985. In New York the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, site of the U.S. Open, named their stadium for Ashe. At the age of forty-nine, Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia at New York Hospital. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Richmond.

As the only black man competing in a sport dominated by white players, Ashe was known for the composure he displayed while battling racism as well as tennis opponents. During his struggle with racism and disease, he remained a model of grace.

Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion (1975), which Ashe wrote with Frank Deford, is a diary of one year in tennis that covers his first trip to South Africa. Days of Grace: A Memoir (1993) was written in collaboration with Arnold Rampersad. Biographies include Ted Weissberg, Arthur Ashe: Tennis Great (1991), and David K. Wright, Arthur Ashe: Breaking the Color Barrier in Tennis (1996). Bud Collins ' Tennis Encyclopedia, 3d ed. (1997), gives a summary of Ashe's career. In "The Sportsman of the Year: The Eternal Example," Sports Illustrated (21 Dec. 1992), Kenny Moore provides the most comprehensive information about Ashe's life after AIDS. Obituaries are in the New York Times (8 Feb. 1993) and Tennis (28 Apr. 1993). An HBO documentary, Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World (1994), discusses Ashe the person instead of the tennis star.