“My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.” Arthur Ashe
Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. (July 10, 1943 – February 6, 1993)
The late, great Arthur Ashe: Former World Number 1 tennis player, winner of 3 Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon 1975
Born on July 10,1943, in Richmond, Virginia, Arthur Ashe became the first, and still only, black player to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, or the Australian Open. Always an activist, when Ashe learned that he had contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion, he turned his efforts to raising awareness of the disease, before finally succumbing to it in 1993.
Tennis player. Born Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. on July 10,1943, in Richmond, Virginia. The oldest of Arthur Ashe, Sr. and Mattie Cunningham’s two sons, Arthur Ashe, Jr. blended finesse and power to forge a groundbreaking tennis game. He became the first, and currently only, African-American to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, or the Australian Open.
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 were required to come straight home. Arthur, Sr. even clocked the distance: “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.”
About a year after his mother’s death, Arthur 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 at UCLA, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
Ashe 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. Two years later, he took home the Australian title, and in 1975 registered another upset by beating Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals.
For Ashe, however, success also brought opportunity and responsibility. He 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.
Ashe’s causes were shaped by both his own personal story and his health. In 1979, he retired from competition after suffering a heart attack, and wrote a history of African-American athletes: A Hard Road to Glory (3 vols, 1988). He also served as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.
Ashe was plagued with health issues over the last 14 years of his life. After undergoing a quadruple bypass operation in 1979, he went under the knife again in 1983 for a second bypass. 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 figured out that Ashe had become positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, from a transfusion of bad blood during his second heart operation.
Initially, Ashe 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. Finally free from the burden of trying to hide his condition, Ashe poured himself into the work of raising awareness about the disease. 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.
He continued to work, even as his health began to deteriorate, making it down to Washington D.C. in late 1992 to participate in a protest over the U.S. 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.
Death and Legacy
On February 6, 1993, Arthur Ashe passed away. Four days later he was laid to rest in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some 6,000 people attended the service.
Ashe, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, was married to Jeanne Moutoussamy from 1977 until his death. They have one daughter, Camera.