“I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments.” —Arthur Ashe
Tennis was our introduction to Arthur Ashe, and he took over from there. He used the platform to become a civil rights activist, a human-rights champion and a model for black thinker-athletes.
The sport turned our attention to the native of Richmond, Va., and he forced us to consider more pressing matters, such as apartheid, HIV/AIDS and the barriers of poverty, privilege and racism.
But the tennis came first, and he was atop the game July 5, 1975, when he became the first black man to win Wimbledon.
“After 40 years, his legacy still lives on in one of the greatest ways,” Serena Williams told reporters at Wimbledon last week. “That was just an amazing match that he played against [Jimmy] Connors. … It’s been [important] for African Americans, not just in tennis, but in all sports, for breaking barriers.”
Ashe burst through the door at Wimbledon after doing likewise at the U.S. Open (1968) and Australian Open (1970). Unfortunately, no one has been able to follow him. Ashe remains the only African-American man to win a grand-slam event, one of the sport’s four major tournaments (the French Open is the fourth). In fact, only one other black man has accomplished the feat: France’s Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983.
Ashe’s title match against Connors was a contrast in styles. Ashe was a UCLA graduate who served as second lieutenant in the Army. He carried himself as a gentleman with an officer’s bearing and was a professed lover of learning. Connors, the defending champion, was at the fore of tennis’ “showman” era. He basked in being a rebel, bragging that he never read books and showing no interest in etiquette.
There was saltiness between the two men. Ashe had questioned Connors’ patriotism because the latter skipped a U.S. Davis Cup match to participate in a lucrative exhibition earlier that year. Ashe rubbed it in by wearing his Davis Cup warmup jacket with “USA” emblazoned on the front. He jumped out to a quick two-set lead and won the match in four sets, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
They shook hands at the net without saying a word. It was Ashe’s last appearance in a grand-slam final.
“Unfortunately I never got to meet Arthur,” Roger Federer told reporters at Wimbledon last week. “But I’m aware what an influential and important person he was in our game, especially for many other people as well. He’s been a leader. I was very happy for him that he was able to win here and utilize his fame for so many great things.”
Many of today’s black athletes do great things, too, in the community and behind the scenes. But they aren’t nearly as bold and outspoken as Ashe was on controversial topics. Though there have been instances of activism in recent years, notably surrounding the cases of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, modern athletes have tended to follow Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy shoes, too” model.
The world was a much different place in 1975 when 31-year-old Ashe arrived at Wimbledon. A prominent supporter of the civil rights movement a decade earlier, he had pioneer experience as a founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals and the first African American chosen for the U.S. Davis Cup team. He came from the lineage of activist athletes such as Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
With the Civil Rights Act slowly, slowly beginning to have an impact, Ashe’s attention was drawn overseas.
A few years earlier, South Africa denied his visa request to compete in the country’s national open. He continued to apply for visas and continued to be denied, using the case to launch his long fight against the government’s systematic oppression. In 1973 he fulfilled a dream by traveling to South Africa and becoming the first black man to play in its open. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Ashe was one of the first people South Africa’s future president asked to meet.
Ashe suffered two heart attacks in 1979 and was forced to retire. It is believed that tainted blood during his second operation led to his diagnosis as HIV-positive in 1988. He spent the rest of his life as a social activist for people with HIV and AIDS until his death in 1993. President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom later that year.
So Ashe’s wish came true, in part.
Although we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of his historic victory at Wimbledon, we remember him for much, much more than tennis.