Arthur Ashe: A lifetime of service
Thirty years after his death, his impact on tennis, Black culture and human rights activism still resonates
Thirty years ago this week, Arthur Ashe died on Feb. 6, 1993. Before the Williams sisters or Tiger Woods, Arthur Ashe blazed a trail of Black excellence in a country club sport. He was also a pioneer activist, and his transition to professional play helped change tennis as a business. Ashe lived a life of service, from his dedication on the tennis court to his ROTC stint at UCLA to his human rights activism.
Arthur Ashe was born July 10, 1943. His dad was supervisor of a segregated Richmond, Virginia, city park. At the age of 10 he was introduced to tennis coach and American Tennis Association fixture Dr. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson. There were many strong Black male tennis players on the ATA circuit before Ashe, most notably Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch of the Harlem Renaissance basketball team in the 1920s, and Dr. Reginald Weir in the 1940s. Neither they nor their peers lacked talent; what was lacking was opportunity. Enter young Ashe.
Ashe benefited from a thriving, well-organized ATA culture, where juvenile players received tutelage from mentors such as Johnson, and in some cases, financial support for training from tennis-loving physicians and attorneys. This circle encouraged, for example, 1958 Wimbledon and US Open women’s singles champion Althea Gibson. By 1958, Ashe was playing in the (racially integrated) Maryland boys’ championships. In high school, he was sent to live with Johnson’s friends, the Hudlin family of St. Louis (the great uncle of filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin). Ten years later, Ashe became the first Black man to win the US Open.
In 1969, despite being the top-ranked male player in the U.S., he was denied a visa to play in South Africa due to apartheid. Ashe lobbied for South Africa to be expelled from the International Lawn Tennis Federation. At the time, Ashe would have been prohibited from joining many of the country clubs in his native U.S.
In 1972, Ashe co-partnered with Jack Kramer to create the Association of Tennis Professionals. He had been playing pro for three years. In those days, some frowned upon amateur tennis, labeling it “shamateur” because the elite amateur players, nicknamed “tennis bums,” survived not from tournament proceeds, but through the support of wealthy sponsors who enjoyed either playing, or being trained by them. The formation of the ATP removed this under-the-table element of world-class tennis. Thanks to the vision of players and former stars such as Jack Kramer and South African Cliff Drysdale, along with Ashe, the best in the game no longer had to be evasive about the way they made a living.
Ashe’s agent, Donald Dell of ProServ, was the second celebrity agent in individual sports (golfer Arnold Palmer’s representative Mark McCormack was the first). The men met as U.S. Davis Cup teammates and became best friends. After signing Ashe, Dell went on to represent highly ranked players Stan Smith, Bob Lutz, Marty Riessen, Tony Roche and Charlie Pasarell.
In 1973, South Africa finally granted Ashe a visa.
On July 5, 1975, Ashe, 32, upset Connors to win the Wimbledon men’s singles championship. Connors had won three Grand Slam singles titles the previous year. Ashe and Connors were feuding as a result of the former’s leadership in the ATP, pro tennis’ closest thing to a labor union. Connors eschewed membership in favor of participating in the fledgling World Team Tennis, which had sued the ATP for banning its players from ATP events.
Ashe was a Davis Cup winner, so when they met in 1975, Ashe wore his Davis Cup jacket with “USA” emblazoned on it as his warmup gear.
In the actual match — a symbolic confrontation of fire against ice — rather than attempt to outpower Connors, Ashe elected to place short, choppy shots, move his opponent widely from left to right, and slice balls that forced Connors to run to the net. The tactic worked, and Ashe triumphed 6-1, 6-1, 5-7 and 6-4.
This win not only placed him back in the limelight, and served notice he wasn’t finished, it was a cultural watermark in the Black U.S. The attention the victor received in both Black and mainstream media sparked Black community interest in tennis. Urban courts were crowded with players, many of them new, and reservations.Others rocked tennis gear, beginning a trend among Black people in the U.S. to sport Izod, Lacoste, Polo and Ralph Lauren designer clothing. Many traded in their funky bell-bottoms and denim overalls for coordinated tennis wear.
In 1977, Ashe married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy. They adopted their daughter Camera in 1986. In 1979, Ashe, 36, suffered a heart attack while hosting a tennis clinic. Later that year, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He retired from competition in 1980. By then he was a Davis Cup captain, a contributing newspaper journalist, and a human rights activist. After Ashe underwent a second bypass surgery in 1983, and he and his doctors said that they were “95 percent certain” that he contracted HIV during a blood transfusion. That same year, he and actor-activist Harry Belafonte founded Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. On Feb. 11, 1990, South African activist Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
By the mid-1980s, Dell’s ProServ agency expanded its representation to the increasingly popular NBA. Two of his biggest clients were Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan (Dell helped negotiate Jordan’s second deal with Nike).
On Nov. 7, 1991, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had contracted HIV and was retiring from basketball. That news conference stunned observers in and outside of athletics. In those days, the virus was not only largely misunderstood but stigmatized as a gay white man’s disease. Much like the coronavirus decades later, HIV and AIDS was politicized and divided people.
In April 1992, Ashe announced in a news conference that he had HIV, preempting a story by USA Today. He had been contacted by a USA Today reporter who was following up on a report from an anonymous source that Ashe had been infected. Ashe said USA Today violated his privacy, “compelling medical or physical necessity to go public with my medical condition.” The paper argued since Ashe was a public figure, his disease was newsworthy and a matter of public interest.
Venus Williams was born in 1980, Serena Williams in 1981. They were 13 and 12 years old, respectively, when Ashe died. Like Ashe, the Williams sisters learned life and success in an overwhelmingly white, individual sport were not easy. So did Woods.
These were lessons Ashe absorbed in the 1950s. Attitudes often remained unchanged.
Scott vonEps, who worked at the pro shop at Cypress Country Club in California where Woods grew up playing, recalled, “Part of the problem was some of the members didn’t want a young kid running around the place but it was also because of the color of his skin. There weren’t that many Black families in Cypress at that time, remember. … If I was working in the shop, they would come and ask me if Tiger had paid for this or that. Tiger never expected anything for free but, dude, if I had anything to do with it, he was getting as much as I could give him.”
The Williams sisters, and especially their dad Richard, faced widespread criticism for turning professional rather than going the collegiate route. As critical as opponents were of the outspoken Ashe, he was a college graduate. And if anyone painted him as ungrateful or disloyal to his country, he could pull his military rank: captain.
If a public figure can be at once quiet and outspoken, it was Ashe. His economic, businesslike playing style and bespectacled appearance belied his fierce, competitive nature and strong sense of justice. His half-century of service has stood the test of time.