Arthur Ashe: Thoughts On A Remarkable Life

International Blog – Michael Dickens


Michael Dickens

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City. In celebrating its history, the U.S. Open also celebrated the legacy of Arthur Ashe with a special photo exhibit on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a new logo for Arthur Ashe Stadium, and a virtual reality experience that transported viewers to 1968 for a front row seat at Ashe’s triumph in winning the first U.S. Open men’s singles championship over Tom Okker.

When Ashe won, he made history as the first African-American man to win the U.S. Open. In 1975, he became the first black man to win Wimbledon, beating Jimmy Connors. Over time, we would remember Ashe – the Jackie Robinson of men’s tennis – not only as a champion of his sport, but also he became a civil rights and human rights champion. By the time this pioneering athlete died at age 49, he had become much larger than tennis.

Acclaimed civil rights historian Raymond Arsenault is the author of a new, relavatory biography, Arthur Ashe: A Life, which is a close look at his life that presents much evidence to suggest that he was not only a great player, he was an extraordinary human being.

I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, on opening day of this year’s U.S. Open, during a book signing at the U.S. Open Bookstore by Court 13. I was most interested to learn firsthand from the author what inspired him to write such an extensive – and insightful – biography that was nine years in the making, included 26 chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue, and featured more than 150 interviews. After all, there were many sides to Ashe: he was a human rights activist, a philanthropist, a broadcaster, a writer, a businessman and a celebrity.

Arthur, whom Arsenault referred to Ashe on a first-name basis throughout the biography, was also an exemplary role model – not perfect, but “he came remarkably close to living up to his professed ideals.”

Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1943. By age 11, Ashe became one of the state’s most talented black tennis players. In spite of this barrier, in 1960, Ashe won the National Junior Indoor singles title, which led to a tennis scholarship at UCLA.

In 1963, Ashe became the first African-American to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team, and two years later he won the NCAA singles championship. In 1968, he won titles in both the U.S. Amateur and the first U.S. Open, and climbed to a No. 1 national ranking. After he turned professional in 1969, Ashe went on to capture two more Grand Slams, winning the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. He retired in 1980, then served four years at the U.S. Davis Cup team captain and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.

It’s been 50 years since Ashe’s victory at the first U.S. Open and 25 years since his death. He would have turned 75 this past July had he lived. Thankfully, his legacy has never left us, and as I learned from my brief chat with the author, it’s a great time to revisit and dig deeper into Ashe’s life story – his joy of the game – from public courts prodigy to consummate professional to Grand Slam champion to civil rights and human rights activist.

Raymond Arsenault

Raymond Arsenault signing books at this year’s US Open

In a recent NPR interview, Arsenault called 1968 as a defining moment for Ashe – not just because he won the U.S. Open. “Sixty-eight really begins his life as the Arthur Ashe that we know,” said Arsenault. “He did great things before 1968, was one of the greatest players in the world already. But as a human being, as someone who transcended sports, it began in ‘68.”

A thinking man’s player, Ashe was shy and generally reticent into his mid-twenties. He showed a parallel behavior on and off the court – polite and respectful – both in victory and defeat. “Then,” said Arsenault, “he took a sharp turn toward activism in 1968 and never looked back.”

The year 1968 was filled with trauma and turbulence. There were the spring assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the escalating tensions of the Vietnam War could be seen on college campuses across the country, the Black Power movement was taking off and, soon, there would be police brutality in the streets outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Soon, Ashe became an activist off the tennis court – the premier public intellectual among American athletes of his time – speaking out about the responsibility black athletes, especially, had to their communities. After all, by the early ‘70s, he had become the world’s best-known black tennis player – and with his growing stature, he realized a responsibility to use his platform to help other black people.

“As the first black man to reach the upper echelon of a notoriously elitist and racially segregated sport,” Arsenault notes, “Ashe exhibited an extraordinary strength of character that eventually made him the most beloved and honored figure in tennis.”

Arsenault writes of Ashe, “He had both the opportunity and responsibility to use his talent and position for a higher purpose than fame or personal gain.”

According to Arsenault, Ashe was never an agitator. “He was very unemotional in his advocacy and his activism,” he said. “He was absolutely determined to have an impact on the broader world.”

As an athlete and an activist, Ashe’s passion off the tennis court was becoming outspoken about civil rights. He focused his attention on fighting apartheid in South Africa.

Ashe was never a threatening presence on or off the tennis court. Instead, as Arsenault described in his NPR interview, Ashe found other means for being seen and heard. “His personality was cool, a little removed. Very Obama-esque,” he writes, comparing Ashe to former U.S. President Barack Obama. Ashe was loyal to a fault.

From 1979 on, Ashe dealt with a serious heart condition, and underwent multiple surgeries and blood transfusions, one of which left him HIV-positive. In 1988, following the completion of a three-volume history of African-American athletes, Ashe was diagnosed with AIDS, a terminal condition that he revealed four years later.

“Withdrawal was never an option for a man who had long identified with civic and social responsibility,” Arsenault writes. “Ashe followed his conscience even when it meant putting his comfort – or even his life – at risk.”

In 1993, after devoting the last 10 months of his life to AIDS activism, the valiant and courageous Ashe died of AIDS at the age of 49. He showed us that life is a journey – not a destination.

Looking back at Ashe’s remarkable life, Arsenault writes, “Never complacent, he had a restless spirit and an ever-searching intellect. Ironically enough, all of this philosophical and experiential turmoil was expressed in a reasoned, deliberate style that became his personal trademark.”

Ashe was so calm and poised on the outside yet so driven and turbulent on the inside.

“Arthur Ashe suffered many defeats, including a cruel and untimely death,” Arsenault writes. “Yet he was undefeated in the realms that mattered most – heart, soul, integrity, and character. In this important sense, there is no shadow to darken his legacy. What remains is the radiance of a good and great man whose inner light shines outward for all to see.”