Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe

(1943-1993)

DJ Name: Arty the Ace

Decades before Emmy and Camille lived in Virginia, a tennis superstar was born in Richmond. No, not Venus or Serena. This one’s name is Arthur Ashe, and Drake never wrote any songs about him. But he was the first (and only) Black man to win, win, win, no matter what, the Wimbledon, and, since December is HIV/AIDS awareness month, it’s a good occasion to revisit his life, which ended early due to the disease. AIDS claims about 1 million lives each year, and in 1993, Arthur was one of them. But there’s so much more to know about him other than his cause of death, and he’s going to tell you his life story right after you press play on his favorite pump-up jams:

Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Va. (what up, Camille!) to Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham. Arthur and his younger brother Johnnie were heavily disciplined by their mother, who taught them how to read at a young age, until her untimely passing when Arthur was just six years old. Arthur’s dad didn’t want his boys to fall into truancy and delinquency, so he kept them in super structured activities after their mother’s death. Like good, god-fearin’ Southern boys, Arthur and Johnnie went to church every Sunday, and they came straight home after school — they were allotted a 12-minute commute — each day. But in the midst of all that structure, Arthur developed a love for tennis — but always a good boy, he was no tennis the menace. In 1947, Arthur’s dad took a job at Brookfield Park, and the position came with a house that was surrounded by an 18-acre Blacks-only park that included tennis courts. Arthur could often be found boppin’ around the park, poppin’ balls across the net, and in 1950, he met Ronald Charity, who was one of the best Black tennis players in the country at the time. Ronald had a charitable spirit, and he took an interest in lil’ Arthur. He taught him proper form and other tennis skillz (don’t you just, like, hit the ball across the net? Is there more to it? We are clearly tennis experts) for the next three years. 

Ronald further proved his charity by setting Arthur up with a permanent coach, Walter Johnson, who could devote more time to honing his talent. Walter was a prominent member of the Black tennis community, and he would go on to work with Arthur throughout his whole career. At that time, there was only one other internationally competitive Black tennis player, Althea Gibson, and Walter coached her, too. In 1958, as a teen, Arthur competed in his first integrated match and was the first Black player in the Maryland boys’ tennis championship. During the summer, Arthur could travel all around competing in tennis matches against other terrific tennis teens of all skin tones. But Black kids like Arthur weren’t allowed to play on indoor courts, so it was much more difficult for him to find matches during the school year and the colder months. His senior year of high school, Arthur said “Deuces!” to Virginia and his dad sent him away to school at Enfield Tennis Academy to play with Mario, Hal and Orin — wait, JK, that only exists in David Foster Wallace’s head. Arthur was actually sent to school in St. Louis, MO, where he could more easily play tennis all year long. At this point, Arthur was gaining a name and fame, winning junior tennis competitions all across the country. On December 12, 1960, Arthur’s talents were illustrated for the world when he was featured in a Sports Illustrated issue as a Face in the Crowd. After his last year of high school, Arthur again said “Deuces!!” and headed west to attend the University of California-Los Angeles on a full scholarship. 

UCLA had a top-notch tennis program, and it was a slam-dunk for Arthur’s success (is that the right sports metaphor??). Arthur continued to gain fame, and he was named to the U.S. Davis Cup team as its first Black player. As a sophomore at UCLA, Arthur was again featured in Sports Illustrated, as his career was becoming quite illustrious. And, tennis never being a menace, Arthur made sure to achieve good grades as well. He was also a fratty boy, joining UCLA’s Kappa Alpha Psi chapter. In 1966, Arthur graduated from college with tennis accolades and a degree in business administration — making him the first member of the paternal side of his family to graduate from college. Aside from graduating in 1965, he also won the individual NCAA championship and his efforts helped UCLA win the team NCAA tennis championship.

A year down the line after graduation, Arthur suited up and joined the Army where he was assigned to West Point and worked as a data processor. During his moves off the court, Arthur was promoted to First Lieutenant. Still an ace on the court though, Arthur led the Academy’s tennis program during his time there. He participated in the Davis Cup again and other lesser-known tournaments like the U.S. Open. Ever heard of it? Lol. Arthur wasn’t considered a profreshional player yet; rather, he was an amateur. But don’t take that and think he was classified as a beginner because we all know he wasn’t.

In the #sports history of the tennis world, amateurs were competitive players who didn’t collect prize money when they won, whereas those considered professional players could enter tournaments for that ca$h money. Since the first slam of a tennis ball was considered grand on the lawn of a tennis court in 1877, most players were classified as amateurs but they wanted compen$ation with their winnings AKA dollar bill$ in their trophy. Over time, skilled amateurs who were fed up with no funding began to play in tournaments run by private parties because they could win prize money. Those who won and collected money became professionals which meant they, at that time, could no longer play in Grand Slam tournaments. As more top players chased the dolla dolla bill$, Grand Slams lost many a player each year. That was until 1968 when the Open Era of tennis began. The omnipotent tennis powers at large finally allowed the opportunity for all players, AKA amateurs and professionals, to compete against each other in Grand Slam tourneys, therefore allowing all classes of players the opportunity to make a living playing tennis because, ya know, their eyes were on the prize money. 

That same year of 1968, America was undergoing turmoil and change. Let’s take a look, for context sake, at what was happenin’. Early in the year, fellow Historic Shuffler, Jeannette Rankin, led about 5,000 women on a march through Washington, D.C. to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; the U.S. recorded its horrifyingly highest casualty toll of the war; U.S. troops killed more than 500 Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai; President LBJ announced he wouldn’t seek re-election; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated; students protested across the country; Richard Nixon won the presidency; and the first humans orbited the moon aboard the Apollo 8. In the midst of the turmoil, Arthur became the first Black man to win the U.S. Open. 

He defeated the Dutchman, Tom Okker, on September 9, 1968, by winning three out of five games. He is still the only Black man to win this title. Though it was the Open Era, Arthur was still registered as an amateur and received a per diem as a member of the Davis Cup team, so he couldn’t accept the U.S. Open prize money, which was $14,000. That went to his runner-up, Tommy. Arthur’s tennis triumphs continued and the U.S. team won the Davis Cup later that same year. Afterward, Arthur teamed up with Charlie Pasarell, a tennis player, and Sheridan Snyder, a tennis connoisseur, to create the National Junior Tennis League. This program introduced kiddos to tennis and taught them to love (ha, tennis pun) it — but it also aimed to instill within them the same sense of discipline and focus that the sport brought Arthur during his adolescent years. Like pro, like beginner (is that how that saying goes?)

Always busy and challenging himself to reach for new heights on and off the court, Arthur applied for a visa to travel to South Africa to compete in the South African Open in 1969, but because of apartheid his application was denied. He continuously applied and South Africa repeatedly denied. In response, Arthur fought to have South Africa expelled from the International Lawn Tennis Federation for its support of racial segregation. His request was refused. This was just the beginning, though, for Arthur in his activism and commitment to humanitarian work both stateside and internationally. He continued his work on the court and  took home the first place prize at the Australian Open and, this time, its ca$h money in 1970. Yet again, he became the first Black man to win the Open and he did it, this time, in only three sets against Australian (awkward) Dick Crealy who he told to kiss his ace as he flew home with a second Grand Slam title. 

Arthur continued to catapult into the spotlight as a tennis superstar. And, as the popularity of the sport and its athletes grew, so too did the monetary value of players. However, these players feared that their earnings didn’t accurately reflect revenue, so Arthur, always a man of action, along with many other tennis players united to support the creation of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 (fun fact: Arty the Ace became its President in 1974). As the years went on, Arthur continued to dominate on the court. South Africa even eventually approved his visa in 1973. He lost to Jimmy Connors in the finals of the South African Open, but hoped that his time spent on the courts of South Africa would help break down stereotypes and start an end to apartheid. Alas, it didn’t and later in life Arthur shared that he was wrong to participate in the South African Open because integration was not on the country’s horizon. 

Arthur reconnected with victory in 1975 when he finally beat Jimmy Connors (remember that name? @South African Open) in four sets at Wimbledon. You know what they say, ninth time’s the charm! He became the first and only Black man to win on the famous grass court (rumor has it Queen Lizzy asked him to sign her forehead). Arthur received the #1 tennis ranking in the world and to think, it all started with a ball, racket and park in good ole Richmond. Arthur continued to play for a few more years, but eventually retired in 1980 at the age of 35. One year prior, he suffered a heart attack while leading a tennis clinic in New York. He was hospitalized for 10 days and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. He remains the only Black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. His career spanned 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles. 

During his tennis tenure, Arthur did fall in love (not the tennis kind) with photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy, whom he married on February 20, 1977 in New York. They had a daughter together named Camera. In retirement, Arthur wrote for many outlets such as Time Magazine and Tennis Magazine (no way!), served as a commentator for ABC Sports, and continued to fight against South African apartheid by founding Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid and protesting outside of the South African embassy in DC where he was arrested in 1985 — the same year he was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. He was also appointed to serve as Captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team, which went on to win the Cup in 1981 and 1982 under his leadership. And — the man was nonstop — he served as the Chairman of the American Heart Association in 1981. Arthur underwent another bypass surgery in 1983. Post surgery, he received a blood transfusion to accelerate his recovery; however, unfortunately, years later, it was determined that the transfusion led him to contract HIV. Still, Arthur didn’t stop. In the late ‘80s, Arthur taught a course at Florida Memorial College titled “The Black Athlete in Contemporary Society,” and it was during this time that he realized the most current and comprehensive text was from 20 years before — not so current, if you ask us (or Arthur). So, naturally, he wrote a three-volume book titled “A Hard Road to Glory” that was published in 1988. And, in 1991, he returned to South Africa as part of a 31-member delegation to observe the political changes that the country was undergoing, specifically the end to apartheid legislation and embracing of integration. Game. Set. Match. 

In 1992, USA Today reached out to Arthur about reports of his illness and he decided to hold a press conference during which he announced that he had contracted AIDS. This stirred up a lot of attention around him and always one to use his platform for the better, Ashe spent the final years of his life raising awareness for AIDS and its victims. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised money for research in treating, curing and preventing AIDS. That same year he was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, and a few months afterwards founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, which addressed issues of inadequate healthcare delivery to minorities in urban settings. The last few days of his life were spent finalizing his autobiography, “Days of Grace.”

On February 6, 1993, Arthur Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia in New York at the age of 49. His body was brought back to Richmond and laid in state at the Governor’s Mansion. He was the first person to lie in state at the mansion since Stonewall Jackson in 1863. And today, a statue of Arthur Ashe stands tall on Monument Avenue where blocks away it meets the cross street of Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Arthur’s legacy lives on as a tennis star, humanitarian, advocate and writer whose life inspires every person who picks up a racket, pen or protest sign to, in his words, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Yearly, tennis players from all walks of life step onto the turf in the finals of the U.S. Open where they play on the mainstage of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, named after the legend, who, decades before, became the first Black man to win its title.

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