Why Arthur Ashe Matters Now More Than Ever
Like Muhammad Ali, tennis great Arthur Ashe stands as one of those transformative sports figures whose impact off the court — or in Ali’s case, outside the ring — rivals or surpasses his athletic feats.
At the same time, it would be difficult to find two athletic greats who were more different from one another than Ali and Ashe. Aside from the fact they both achieved stardom as African-American sports icons during the turbulent civil rights years of the 1960s, they could not have been more opposite in demeanor and temperament.
In 2016, President Barack Obama made that point when he spoke of Ashe and Ali being the sports figures he most admired, perhaps the most fitting tribute to their contrasting personalities and ability to achieve transformational ends through such different means.
Where Ali was the brash motormouth who seemingly never let a thought go unspoken, Ashe often played the role of soft-spoken, reserved diplomat. Where Ali boasted of his greatness, Ashe was the picture of humility on and off the court. And where Ali plunged headfirst into the great social debates of his day, Ashe was more judicious in picking his spots to speak out while always leading through an example marked by dignity and civility.
It’s all the more surprising, then, that Ashe and Ali were the bookends of an era where black athletes found their voice and and led the charge for social justice on so many fronts.
Here are 24 incredible facts about Ashe that help explain his legacy on and off the court.
Overcoming Childhood Trauma
Ashe experienced a childhood tragedy most could only imagine: losing his mother at age 6 due to complications from a pregnancy. But though she was part of his life for only a short time, she had a huge impact, teaching Ashe to read at age 4.
It was shortly after her death that he started pouring his heart into tennis.
Plagued by Illnesses Throughout His Life
Ashe’s athletic achievements are all the more impressive because he faced chronic health problems from childhood to his final years. Growing up, Ashe reportedly suffered from measles, chickenpox, mumps, whooping cough and diphtheria, among other illnesses.
He retired from tennis in 1979 after suffering a heart attack, undergoing a quadruple-bypass surgery, followed by another bypass operation in 1983. And tragically, he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion that ultimately led to his death in 1993 at age 49 from AIDS.
Instant Success on the Court
Despite his slight build and background as a sickly child, Ashe wasted no time excelling on the tennis court. Under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., who also coached the great Althea Gibson, Ashe reached the junior national championships in his first tournament.
A Man of Firsts
It’s no exaggeration to say Ashe was the Jackie Robinson of men’s tennis. He broke no shortage of color barriers, becoming the first African-American to join the U.S. Davis Cup team, and later becoming the first — and still only — African-American to win U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon championships.
A few days after winning the U.S. Open in 1968, he became the first athlete to appear on the CBS public affairs program "Face the Nation."
In 1985, he became the first African-American man to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Overcoming Racism on the Court
Sometimes mistaken for a water boy or waiter while playing tournaments in the country club sport of tennis, Ashe was no stranger to racism as an African-American sports pioneer.
In 1969, a year after winning the U.S. Open, Ashe was ordered off the tennis court at an all-white Florida club.
His First Grand Slam Title Was a Surprise
Ashe was not considered a favorite by any stretch heading into the 1968 U.S. Open, which marked the first year that pros and amateurs could compete against one another in grand slam tournaments. As a fifth-seeded amateur, he prevailed in a field that featured Australian greats Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe.
He Missed Out on the Purse for the U.S. Open Title
Because Ashe was still an amateur and receiving a per diem as a member of the Davis Cup team, he had to sacrifice the $14,000 winner’s check for winning the 1968 U.S. Open.
Instead, the money went to the player he defeated in the final, Tom Okker.
A Humble Champion
Ashe’s image as a reserved, down-to-earth athlete, despite his triumphs, was captured iconically by photographer John G. Zimmerman, who photographed Ashe standing unnoticed in a subway station working on a crossword puzzle the day after he captured the 1968 U.S. Open singles title.
Zimmerman’s photographs of Ashe from the 1968 Open became the subject of a book, "Crossing the Line: Arthur Ashe at the 1968 U.S. Open."
He Changed the Narrative
Arthur Ashe visited the White House in February 1969 with his U.S. Davis Cup team as luncheon guests of President Richard Nixon.
When Nixon saw the huge trophy they brought to the White House, he had one word: "Wow."
Mentored by the Two Panchos
Tennis greats Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura both took notice of a young Ashe while he was attending UCLA, and played key roles in helping to refine his tennis game.
It certainly seemed to help, as Ashe won the NCAA men’s singles and doubles championships in 1965, while also leading the Bruins to the team title.
Ashe and Gonzales would face off twice in 1969, splitting their meetings at Las Vegas (Gonzales victory) and Wimbledon (Ashe victory).
Ashe beat Segura in their only meeting, in 1970 in Los Angeles.
He Was Once Accused of Being an Uncle Tom
Ashe’s quiet demeanor and nonconfrontational approach toward social justice didn’t always endear him with activists during the civil rights era, when African-American athletes like Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell tended to be more outspoken.
Ashe addressed the issue head-on when he said: "Sometimes a demonstration is the best way of getting headlines about a bad deal, but I don’t think demonstrators should try to make trouble for anyone. We’ll never advance very far by force, because we’re outnumbered 10 to 1. Quiet negotiation and slow infiltration look more hopeful to me. Does this make me an Uncle Tom? If so, OK."
He Also Fought Discrimination Outside the U.S.
In November 1973, Arthur Ashe traveled to the apartheid state of South Africa and became the first black man to play in that country’s national tennis tournament.
Ashe was following the lead of his friend Billie Jean King — who played the Battle of the Sexes in Houston two months prior to his trip — to use tennis to inspire social change.
He Shocked the Tennis World Again in 1975
Despite the years he had spent as a top-ranked player, Ashe entered the 1975 Wimbledon tournament again as a decided underdog, much as he had been at the U.S. Open seven years earlier.
Defending champion Jimmy Connors was the heavy favorite, and a young Bjorn Borg also loomed.
Despite having lost his three previous meetings with Connors and appearing past his prime at age 32, Ashe pulled off the upset in the final, defeating Connors in four sets.
Helping to Unionize Professional Tennis
In 1972, Ashe played a leading role in the founding of the Association of Professional Tennis (ATP) to protect the interests of men’s tennis players.
The ATP continues to administer the worldwide circuit of men’s tennis today.
Opening the Door to Endorsements for Black Athletes
Ashe’s popularity among black and white fans alike made him one of the first African-American athletes to draw major endorsement opportunities, ultimately opening the door for future athletes like Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, who became commercial sensations.
Wanting to Punch John McEnroe
The polite, always-respectful Ashe was the antithesis of the volatile, tantrum-throwing John McEnroe, and their styles clashed when Ashe coached the young American on the U.S. Davis Cup team in the early 1980s.
Ashe admitted to wanting to punch McEnroe for his histrionics on the court but also acknowledged that he was envious of the manner in which McEnroe could display the type of raw emotion that Ashe constantly found himself repressing during his career.
An Accomplished Author
Ashe’s thoughtful persona and intellect manifested itself in the early 1980s, when he spent several years researching and writing "A Hard Road to Glory," a groundbreaking, three-volume history of African-American athletes.
He won an Emmy award for co-writing the television adaptation of the book.
In his final days, he finished writing his memoir, "Days of Grace."
He Played Tennis While Serving in the Army
Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army was a signature chapter in his life and boxing career. Ashe, on the other hand, spent three years in the Army after graduating from UCLA in 1966, even as he continued to excel on the court.
Indeed, he still was in the midst of his military service when he won the U.S. Open in 1968.
Arrested Twice for Civil Disobedience
Though known for his nonconfrontational style of activism, Ashe did show a penchant for civil disobedience at times during his life, and it twice resulted in arrests: the first in 1985 while protesting apartheid in front of the South African embassy, and again in 1992 in front of the White House while demonstrating against the George H.W. Bush administration’s policy toward Haitian refugees.
A Picture-Perfect Marriage
Ashe met renowned photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy during a United Negro College Fund benefit in 1976 and married her a year later.
The wedding was officiated by civil rights pioneer and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, and the couple named their adopted daughter Camera in a nod to Jeanne’s profession.
They remained married until his death in 1993.
Leading the Fight Against AIDS
In keeping with his lifetime of activism for social causes, Ashe immersed himself in raising awareness around AIDS after his own condition became public.
He spoke at the United Nations, started a foundation, and initiated a $5 million fundraising campaign, while also advocating for more government resources to combat the disease.
A Name Synonymous With Awards and Honors
You’d be hard-pressed to find an athlete who’s had more things named after him or her.
Arthur Ashe Stadium is now home to the U.S. Open in New York, and the largest tennis stadium in the world.
ESPN’s ESPY awards features the annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award, honoring a person in the sports world who exhibits courage in the face of adversity.
And his alma mater, UCLA, hosts The Arthur Ashe Student Wellness Center.
Still Standing Up Against Prejudice
Sculptor Paul Di Pasquale created a statue of Ashe to honor and remember him on Monument Ave. in Richmond, Va.
Unveiled on July 10, 1996, the bronzed likeness depicts the bespectacled Ashe, clad in a warmup suit and tennis shoes, holding books high above his head in his right hand. He holds a tennis racket a little lower in his left hand. At his feet are four children.
The likeness of the tennis great joins statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate icons on Richmond's most famous avenue.
Value of Hall of Fame Humanity
Arthur Ashe is much more than a tennis legend. Though he is gone, he continues to make an impact through his life's work.
In these polarized times — when inequality remains a reality in the United States — Ashe can serve as an inspiration and guide for how to move past our differences and achieve justice for all.