“My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.”
Arthur Ashe may very well be one of the greatest men to ever live, and it is his enduring spirit and unwavering courage that truly embodies the very essence of my senior project. Simply read some of his most famous quotes, and you will understand the wisdom and integrity that he displayed throughout the course of his life. Best known for becoming the first African American to win a men’s Grand Slam title, he used his success in the game of tennis to advocate civil rights and equality not just in the United States, but throughout the world. He worked tirelessly to bring about the end of injustice and inequality, so much so that many criticized him for abandoning his tennis game to champion his causes. In the end, however, he would say, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments”, and he hasn’t been. He has instead been remembered first and foremost as a conscience leader, humanitarian, educator and, lastly, an incredibly gifted athlete.
Born in 1943 in segregated Virginia, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. began learning tennis at a young age. His tennis prowess was evident early on, and soon he came under the tutelage of Dr. Walter Johnson, the same man who coached the great Althea Gibson. After success in many junior tournaments as a teenager, Ashe was offered a full tennis scholarship to UCLA, one of the best college tennis programs in the country. While at UCLA, his tennis career flourished, and in 1963, he was selected as a member of the United States Davis Cup team, becoming the first African American ever to achieve this honor and represent his country on the international stage. Ashe took great pride in this achievement and would continue to play on the team for many years, a testament to his patriotism and national pride. His prestigious college career ultimately culminated with both an individual and team NCAA Championship in 1965.
Upon graduating, Ashe went on to serve in the military, joining the US Army from 1966-68. While stationed in West Point, New York, Ashe continued his tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other national tournaments. He even went on to win the US Open in 1968, becoming the first African American man to do so and solidifying his place at the top of the tennis world. It was in 1969, following his military service, that he truly began to establish himself as both a powerful and diligent activist. After noticing that tournament prize money was dwindling significantly in proportion with the rising popularity of the game of tennis, Arthus Ashe, along with several other players, partnered to form what is today known as the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), essentially the men’s professional tennis circuit. Later in the year, Ashe also cofounded the National Junior Tennis League with Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder, a program that sought to give children the chance to play tennis that might otherwise not have had the opportunity, while also promoting an attention to academics and discipline.
That year, Arthur Ashe also expanded his activism beyond the United States’ borders when he applied for a visa to South Africa to play in the South African Open, a prominent tournament. At the time the #1 ranked American player in the world, Ashe was denied entry into South Africa due to racial discrimination laws under Apartheid. In response, he used his denial to take a stand against the racism of South Africa and called for the expulsion of the country from the international tennis tour and Davis Cup play. He continually applied for visas, and was continually rejected, until 1973, when he was finally allowed entry and became the first black tennis player to participate in a South African event. His fight against the injustice of Apartheid would continue for the next two decades, remaining a cause dear to his heart until the end of his life.
Meanwhile, on the court, Arthur’s tennis game continued to thrive. He won the 1970 Australian Open, the second of his three majors, before going on to upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final to become the first and only African American to win the men’s championship on the lawns of All England Club. His unprecedented victory would go on to propel him to the #1 ranking in the world, and he remains the only African American man to ever achieve this accomplishment. After enjoying this profound success, Ashe would later go on to suffer from an unexpected heart attack and undergo subsequent heart surgery. It was these heart complications that would prompt him to retire from the game in 1980 with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles, a career that would eventually put him in the Tennis Hall of Fame.
Although he may have ended his playing career, Arthur Ashe’s off-court career and humanitarian efforts flourished. He served as a columnist for the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Tennis Magazine, a commentator for HBO Sports and ABC Sports, and author of a three volume body of work about African Americans in sports entitled “A Hard Road to Glory”. Additionally, he was appointed captain of the US Davis Cup team, leading the team to two titles in 1981 and 1982, and served as the president of the American Heart Association. Furthermore, he founded numerous charitable organizations, including the National Junior Tennis League, the ABC Cities Tennis Program, the Athlete-Career Connection, and the Safe Passage Foundation. All the while, he continued his hard work in fighting prejudice and inequality in America, as well as Apartheid in South Africa. He was even arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington DC during an anti-apartheid protest in 1985.
It was in 1988, however, the Arthur Ashe’s life was forever changed. While in the hospital for brain surgery, it was revealed that he was HIV-positive, having contracted the virus from a tainted blood transfusion during a second heart surgery in 1983. Wary of public scrutiny and paranoia surrounding the disease at the time, Ashe and his wife chose to keep the diagnosis private, seeking to retain a sense of normalcy and privacy in their lives. He did not publicly announce his diagnosis until 1992, when USA Today contacted him to say that they had on record that he was HIV-positive. Rather than let the newspaper break the story, Ashe held a preemptive press conference on April 8th, 1992, to announce to the world that he had contracted AIDS.
Suddenly, Arthur Ashe had a new cause to champion, and in the final year of his life, he worked tirelessly for AIDS awareness and research. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised money for research into treating, curing and preventing AIDS. He spoke before the U.N. General Assembly on World AIDS day to raise international awareness of the disease, begging delegates for increased funding in research and hoping to prompt them to address AIDS as an important global issue. Ashe continued his dedication to other causes as well, being arrested for protesting outside the White House against US policy toward Haitian refugees and founding the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, which was dedicated to solving medical problems in urban, low income, minority populations. Lastly, he competed his memoir, “Days of Grace”, only days before his death. Then, on February 6th, 1993, only ten months after announcing to the world that he suffered from the AIDS virus, Arthur Ashe died from AIDS related pneumonia at the age of 49, leaving behind his beloved wife and daughter.
The legacy that Arthur Ashe has left behind is one of courage and perseverance. Throughout his life, he remained dedicated to causes of social justice and humanitarian aid, undaunted by the segregation and oppression he faced as an African American. He lived with the utmost compassion for his fellow humans and spent his life working to implement change in a broken world, from apartheid in South Africa to segregation in the United States. Arthur Ashe was a truly great man, one who left the world a better place than he found it and who accomplished so much in his short life that we can only stand it awe at his incredible dedication and perseverance.
“Biography – Arthur Ashe Official Website.” Biography – Arthur Ashe Official Website. The Estate of Arthur Ashe, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.
“Life Story of Arthur Ashe.” ArthurAshe.org. Arthur Ashe Learning Center, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.