Who Was Arthur Ashe?
Arthur Ashe became the first (and remains the only) African American male tennis player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon singles titles. He was also the first African American man to earn the No. 1 ranking in the world and the first to earn induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame. Always an activist, when Ashe learned that he had contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion, he turned his efforts to raising awareness about the disease, before finally succumbing to it on February 6, 1993.
Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. The older of Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham's two sons, Arthur Ashe Jr. blended finesse and power to forge a groundbreaking tennis game.
Ashe's childhood was marked by hardship and opportunity. Under his mother's direction, Ashe was reading by the age of four. But his life was turned upside down two years later, when Mattie passed away.
Ashe's father, fearful of seeing his boys fall into trouble without their mother's discipline, began running a tighter ship at home. Ashe and his younger brother, Johnnie, went to church every Sunday, and after school they were required to come straight home, with Arthur Sr. closely watching the time: "My father ... kept me home, out of trouble. I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school, and I kept to that rule through high school."
Early Tennis Career
About a year after his mother's death, Ashe discovered the game of tennis, picking up a racket for the first time at the age of seven at a park not far from his home. Sticking with the game, Ashe eventually caught the attention of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., a tennis coach from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was active in the Black tennis community. Under Johnson's direction, Ashe excelled.
In his first tournament, Ashe reached the junior national championships. Driven to excel, he eventually moved to St. Louis to work closely with another coach, winning the junior national title in 1960 and again in 1961. Ranked the fifth-best junior player in the country, Ashe accepted a scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
Winning the U.S. Open Title in 1968
In 1963 Ashe became the first African American to be recruited by the U.S. Davis Cup team. He continued to refine his game, gaining the attention of his tennis idol, Pancho Gonzales, who further helped Ashe hone his serve-and-volley attack. The training all came together in 1968, when the still-amateur Ashe shocked the world by capturing the U.S. Open title — becoming the first (and still the only) African American male player to do so. Two years later, he took home the Australian title.
Winning Wimbledon; Becoming No. 1 Tennis Player in 1975
In 1975 Ashe registered another upset by beating Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals, marking another pioneering achievement within the African American community — becoming the first African American male player to win Wimbledon — which, like his U.S. Open victory, remains unmatched. That same year, Ashe became the first African American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world. Ten years later, in 1985, he would become the first African American man to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Ashe didn't relish his status as the sole Black star in a game dominated by white players, but he didn't run away from it, either. With his unique pulpit, he pushed to create inner-city tennis programs for youth, helped found the Association of Men's Tennis Professionals and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa — even going so far as to successfully lobby for a visa so he could visit and play tennis there.
The tennis great also wrote a history of African American athletes: A Hard Road to Glory (three volumes, published in 1988) and served as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.
Health Problems and AIDS Diagnosis
Ashe, who retired from competition in 1980, was plagued with health issues over the last 14 years of his life. After undergoing a quadruple bypass operation in 1979, he had a second bypass operation in 1983. In 1988 he underwent emergency brain surgery after experiencing paralysis of his right arm. A biopsy taken during a hospital stay revealed that Ashe had AIDS. Doctors soon discovered that Ashe had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from a transfusion of blood that he was given during his second heart operation.
Initially, he kept the news hidden from the public. But in 1992, Ashe came forward with the news after he learned that USA Today was working on a story about his health battle.
After news of his condition became public, Ashe poured himself into the work of raising awareness about AIDS. He delivered a speech at the United Nations, started a new foundation and laid the groundwork for a $5 million fundraising campaign for the institution.
Ashe continued to work, even as his health began to deteriorate, traveling to Washington, D.C. in late 1992 to participate in a protest over the United States' treatment of Haitian refugees. For his part in the demonstration, Ashe was taken away in handcuffs. It was a poignant final display for a man who was never shy about showing his concern for the welfare of others.
Ashe met acclaimed photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy at a United Negro College Fund benefit in 1976 and married her a year later. Andrew Young, the Ambassador to the United Nations, presided over the wedding. The couple remained together until Ashe's death.
In 1986 Ashe and Moutoussamy adopted a girl named Camera, after the latter's line of work.
Ashe died in New York City on February 6, 1993, from AIDS-related pneumonia. Four days later, he was laid to rest in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some 6,000 people attended the service.
In addition to his pioneering tennis career, Ashe is remembered as an inspirational figure. He once said: "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost." He also offered words about achieving success: "One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation."
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