Black in the Day…A True Champion

September 9, 1968

On this date in 1968, Arthur Ashe won the US Open singles tennis Championship. This accomplishment was the first time a Black man had won this title in professional tennis. Ashe was the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. He retired in 1980. He was ranked World No. 1 by Harry Hopman in 1968 and by Lance Tingay of The Daily Telegraph and World Tennis Magazine in 1975.[2][4] In the ATP computer rankings, he peaked at No. 2 in May 1976.[5]

Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, to Arthur Ashe Sr. (d. 1989) and Mattie Cordell Cunningham Ashe on July 10, 1943. He had a brother, Johnnie, who was five years younger than he.[6] In March 1950, Ashe’s mother Mattie died from complications related to a toxemic pregnancy (now known as pre-eclampsia) at the age of 27.[7] Ashe and his brother were raised by their father who worked as a handyman and salaried caretaker-Special Policeman for Richmond’s recreation department.[6] Ashe began playing tennis at age 7 on courts at Brookfield Park, a segregated playground adjacent to his home. Seven years later he found a mentor in Hall of Famer Dr. Robert Johnson, who for two decades had assisted black tennis prodigies, including Althea Gibson. Even as a youth, Ashe was a cerebral player and Johnson’s guidance was instrumental on how his pupil comported himself on the court. His on-court etiquette was among the finest in tennis history. His high school interscholastic career started at Maggie L. Walter High School, but was completed at Summer High School in St. Louis, where he could face stronger competition.

As the No. 5 ranked junior in the country, Ashe won the National Junior Indoor Championship in 1962 and was awarded a full scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. As a student at UCLA, Ashe attracted the attention of both Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura, who helped refine his game and encourage experimentation. He won both the NCAA Division I singles and doubles championships in 1965, defeating Mike Belkin of the University of Miami, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 in singles and teaming with Ian Crookenden to capture the doubles title. With Ashe in tow, the Bruins won the 1965 NCCA team championship.

Starting in 1959, when he made his major tournament debut at the U.S. Nationals, Ashe played twenty years, retiring in 1979. He was a fixture at the U.S. Nationals/US Open, playing 18 times and earning a 53-17 record, the best of the four majors. He was a semifinalist in 1965 (losing to champion Manuel Santana 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4) and a finalist in 1972 (losing to Ilie Năstase in a sensational match that saw Năstase erase a 2-1 sets deficit, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3).

Ashe only competed at the Australian Nationals/Open six times, but became the first African-American to win the title in 1970, defeating five Aussies, including Dick Crealy in the final, 6-4, 9-7, 6-2. He earned his semifinal win when fellow American Dennis Ralston retired down 2-1 sets in the fourth. Ashe also was a finalist in 1966, 1967, and 1971, losing to Roy Emerson the first two years and Rosewall in 1971 as the defending champion. The red clay at Roland Garros was not especially suited for Ashe’s game; he was a quarterfinalist twice (1970, 1971), but the fast grass at Wimbledon was a surface that appealed to his attacking, serve-and-volley style.

Ashe had been a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 1968 and 1969, and when he defeated No. 1 seed and heavy favorite Jimmy Connors in 1975, it was a throwback to his US Open championship run seven years earlier. The Wimbledon field was stacked with Connors, Rosewall, Björn BorgGuillermo Vilas, and Năstase, all seeded higher. Ashe, nearing his 32nd birthday, had never defeated Connors in three previous meetings and was seeking his first Wimbledon title. His draw became more favorable as the fortnight progressed, Năstase out in the second round, Rosewall a fourth round casualty, and Vilas ousted in the quarterfinals. He upset Borg in the quarterfinals and needed to prevail in five long sets against Roche in the semifinals. The final against Connors saw Ashe play perhaps his finest strategic and athletic match in a huge upset, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. His lateral movement on the baseline that afternoon was swift, yet controlled; Connors had few openings to slip balls past his opponent. Ashe sliced his backhand low and deep, mixed up his pace, placed lobs effectively; instead of booming big first serves, he sliced his serve wide to both Connors’s backhand and forehand and charged the net. His volleys were on point and the victory ranks as one of Wimbledon’s biggest upsets. “I always thought I could win,” Ashe said afterwards. “I was pretty confident. I had been playing well.”

The years that Ashe won his upset-laden major singles titles were his finest. In 1968 he won 10 of 22 tournaments he entered and compiled a 72-10 match record. In 1975 he was even better – winning eight of 26 tournaments with a 97-18 record. Ashe defeated Borg at the Dallas WCT Finals, 3–6, 6–4, 6–4, 6–0.

He won a pair of major doubles titles, the first at the French in 1971 alongside Marty Riessen in a lengthy 6-8, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 11-9 victory over fellow Americans Tom Gorman and Stan Smith and a second in straight sets at the 1977 Australian with partner Tony Roche. Ashe spent ten years ranked in the world’s Top 10, rising to No. 2 in 1976.

After retiring from competition, Ashe served as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and led it to consecutive victories (1981–82). Ashe received media attention for his Davis Cup campaigns, his protests against apartheid in South Africa, and his call for higher educational standards for all athletes. But he spent most of his time dealing quietly with the “real world” through public speaking, teaching, writing, business, and public service. Ashe helped develop: the ABC Cities program, combining tennis and academics; the Safe Passage Foundation for poor children, which includes tennis training; the Athletes Career Connection; the Black Tennis & Sports Foundation, to assist minority athletes; and 15-Love, a substance abuse program.

After heart surgery in 1983 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 become an adviser 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 was elected to the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Eastern Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He became the first person named to the U.S. Professional Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He spent six years and $300,000 of his own money 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 version of his work. He also worked as a broadcaster at tennis matches, sports consultant at tennis clinics, and columnist for the Washington Post.

After brain surgery in 1988 came the discovery that Ashe had been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS, a fatal disease that attacks the body’s immune system). Doctors traced the infection back to a blood transfusion he received after his second heart operation in 1983. After going public with the news in 1992, Ashe established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to provide treatment to AIDS patients and to promote AIDS research throughout the world. He rallied professional tennis to help raise funds and to increase public awareness of the disease. He addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on World AIDS Day, December 1, 1992.

Arthur Ashe died on February 6, 1993, in New York City. As Ashe’s body lay in state at the governor’s mansion in Virginia, mourners paid their respects at a memorial service held in New York City and at the funeral at the Ashe Athletic Center in Richmond. In 1996 Ashe’s hometown of Richmond announced plans to erect a statue in his honor. The following year a new stadium at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, was named after him.

Info courtesy of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

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