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Apart from Australia's tennis players, I loved Arthur Ashe most of all.

Born in Richmond Va, Arthur Ashe (1943–93) began tennis at 7 at Brook­field Park, a segregated park near home. Years later he found a mentor in Dr Robert Johnson, who coached young black tennis stars. Arthur was a clever player, handsome, had a great body and was well behaved on court - these were the only things I cared about as a teen *sigh*.

Starting in 1959, Ashe made his major tournament debut at the USA Nationals. As the #5 ranked junior in the US, Ashe won the National Jun­ior Indoor Championship in 1962 and was awarded a schol­ar­ship to the University of California LA. At UCLA, Ashe attracted the attent­ion of tennis great Pancho Gonzales. He was a fixture at the US Nationals/US Open, playing 18 times. He was a semi-finalist in 1965, losing to champion Manuel Santana, and a finalist in 1972, losing to Ilie Năstase in a sensational match.

Althea Gibson had actually been the first black American tennis player to break the colour barrier! She went on to win the French Open singles and doubles and the Wimbledon doubles titles in 1956. But in the USA, 1968 was the first year amateurs and professionals could compete against each other in the Open. It was won by Arthur Ashe! When he accepted the cup, he threw an arm around the should­ers of his fiercely proud father who wept.

  Arthur Ashe holding his father's shoulder
Winning the USA Open 1968 

Ashe rose from segregation and racial roadblocks to become the first African-American male to win the US Open (1968), Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975). In 1963 he was the first African-American chosen to play Davis Cup for the USA, and in ten years representing his country, the US won five championships (1963, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1978).

Ashe became an author, educator and campaigner for civil rights and racial equality, in the USA and in apartheid South Africa. Pam Shriver wrote that Arthur was a voice for all min­or­it­ies and for women. He brought a new consc­ience to the game, and his infl­uence lasted even after he left sport.

In Aug 1968, 25 year old Ashe was in the midst of a three-year Army term, and expectations were low. Seeded #5, Ashe became an unlikely US Open champion amongst a field that included four Australians seeded ahead of him: Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall and John New­com­be. He was under no pressure to win the championship but as it happened, Ashe defeated talented Dutchman Tom Okker, seeded #8. I wanted the Australians to win, but Ashe was my next favourite player.

Ashe had become the first American in 14 years to win at Forest Hills, but the victory was limited. Ashe was still an amateur then, receiving a day rate as a member of the Davis Cup team; the $14,000 prize went to Okker. Thankfully in Dec 1968 he became the #1 ranked USA player. He had a great 1968 season, helping to lead the USA Davis Cup team to a clear 4-1 victory over Aust­ralia.

Ashe competed at the Australian Open six times, becoming the first African-American to win the title in 1970. He was a fin­alist in 1966, 1967 & 1971, losing to Roy Emerson the first two years and Rosewall in 1971 as the defending champion.

The red clay at Roland Garros was not especially suited for Ashe’s game. Rather it was the fast Wimb­le­don grass that best suited his serve-and-volleying. Ashe had been a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 1968 and 1969. Wimb­le­don starred Connors, Rosewall, Borg, Vilas & Năstase, all seeded higher. Ashe had never defeated Connors in 3 previous meetings and was seeking his first Wimbledon title. His draw became more favourable as the fortnight progressed; he upset Borg in the quarterfinals and won in five long sets against Roche in the semi-finals. The final against Connors saw Ashe play perhaps his finest match, in a huge upset!

Arthur won a pair of major doubles titles, the first at the French in 1971 alongside Marty Riessen in a lengthy victory over fellow Americans and a second in straight sets at the 1977 Australian with partner Tony Roche. Ashe was firmly seated in the world’s Top 10.

Photo­­grapher Jeanne Moutoussamy married Arthur in 1977, and they had a much loved daughter, Camera.

In 1979, at 36, Ashe suffered his first heart attack that re­quired bypass surgery and led to his retirement from tennis. He suffered another heart attack and had bypass surgery in 1983. From a blood transfusion in one of these two surgeries, he contracted HIV.

His tennis career was over, but he was keen to continue his phil­anthropic and humanitarian endeav­ours, which occupied his life for a decade. He helped found the Ass­ociation of Tennis Professionals, the organisation that union­ised the profess­ion­al tour. Later he co-founded the National Junior Tennis League in New York City, Detroit, Atlanta etc. That same year he published his three-volume treatise A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. And co-wrote the television adaptation of the book.

Daddy and Me
by Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe, 1993

Ashe addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1992, urging increased funding for AIDS research, and he also started the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to bring healthcare programmes to the inner city. He died in 1993. One of his most prominent honours came when he was post­humously awarded the Presid­ential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe published a photographic book, Daddy and Me (1993), including the sad AIDS crisis in Arthur’s last years. And thank you to the Official Arthur Ashe Website and International Tennis Hall of Fame page.


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