When one looks at the life of Arthur Ashe, it was an uphill task both off and on the Tennis court. He was trying to get his talent recognized at a time when the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was at its fever pitch. The politics of the USA, in combined with trying to change a mindset for a dangerous condition is perhaps the greatest contribution by Arthur Ashe aside from his Tennis exploits.
The life of Arthur Ashe is an inspiration of how a sportsman can transcend society and make a bigger impact. As already the first Black player in the world of Tennis, it might have been interesting to imagine what would have been Ashe’s views in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. But, in 1993, at just the age of 49, Arthur Ashe died due to an even bigger problem which was HIV AIDS.
Right from the very beginning, Ashe was subjected to the race problem that had plagued the USA. The Jim Crow laws, which had further strengthened segregation, were in full flow during the 50s and the 60s. Ashe stayed in caretaker’s cottage on the grounds of 18-acre Brookfield Park, Richmond’s largest blacks-only public playground. This playground had basketball courts, four tennis courts, a pool, and three baseball diamonds. Ashe started playing tennis at seven years of age and began practicing on the courts. His natural talent was spotted by Ron Charity, a Tennis instructor who was the best black tennis player in Richmond.
The training by Charity and later on by Rob Walter Johnson paid huge dividends to Ashe’s career. Johnson founded and funded the Junior Development Program of the American Tennis Association. In 1963, history was created when Ashe was selected for the US Davis Cup team. But, five years later, there would be greater glory awaiting Ashe.
The year 1968 was epoch-defining for Tennis. The sport had moved from the Amateur Era to the Open Era. Now, Tennis players were getting big prominence. In 1968, during the US Open, Arthur Ashe created history when he won the first US Open tournament against Bob Lutz. But, even here, there was a catch. Since Ashe was in the list of Army regulars, he had to maintain his amateur status. So, he forfeited the USD 14,000 prize money and got just USD 20 daily expenses as his prize.
Ashe became the first black male to capture the title. He is the only player to have won both the amateur and open national championships in the same year. At the same time, there was also a rule that if he had to be eligible for the Davis Cup, he had to be an amateur. That changed in subsequent years.
Ashe went on to win the Australian Open, becoming the first non-Australian to win the tournament since 1959. But, despite coming into the Open Era, there were still disputes. A dispute between the ILTF and the WCT. Ashe, as one of the 32 contracted WCT players, was barred from taking part in any ILTF Grand Prix tennis circuit tournaments from January to July. This ban meant Ashe was unable to play at the French Open and Wimbledon Grand Slam tournaments.
In order to ensure such disputes never arose and concerns that men’s tennis professionals were not receiving winnings commensurate with the sport’s growing popularity, Ashe supported the founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals. He went on to become its elected president in 1974.
In that same year in which Ashe was elected President of the ATP, he had lost the US Open to Ile Nastase in five sets. Ashe was leading 2-1 but irked by some on-court antics of Nastase irritated him. The American lost the game but he had success later on. Ashe won the season-ending championships by beating Bjorn Borg. On the ninth attempt, he finally managed to win the coveted Wimbledon title by beating fellow American Jimmy Connors.
But, a left heel injury required surgery and he was never the same again. He retired at the age of 36, but he had become the first black sportsman in the history of the game to have won Grand Slam titles. The only regret was that he never won the French Open.
But, away from the court, Ashe’s health took a pounding. When he was conducting a Tennis clinic, Ashe suffered a heart attack. He pondered a return to Tennis but on a trip to Egypt, while running, he developed chest pains. It was revealed that he had a hereditary heart condition that required surgery. After the completion of his surgery, Ashe became national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association. But, his problems did not end there.
In September 1988, Ashe was hospitalized after experiencing paralysis in his right arm. After undergoing exploratory brain surgery and a number of tests, doctors discovered that he had toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that is commonly found in people infected with HIV. A subsequent test later revealed that he was HIV positive. Ashe and his doctors believed he contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his second heart surgery.
After Ashe went public with his illness, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He worked to raise awareness about the virus and advocated teaching sex education and safe sex. Ashe also fielded questions about his own diagnosis and attempted to clear up the misconception that only homosexual and bisexual men, or IV drug users were at risk for contracting HIV. On February 6, 1993, Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia at New York Hospital at the age of 49.
The legacy that Ashe had built on the court and off it remains legendary. In honour of Arthur Ashe, the main centre court in Flushing Meadows New York where the US Open is played is named after him. Arthur Ashe will forever be remembered as an individual who changed the thinking of society at a time where they were resistant to change.