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Black Tennis Week

Arthur Ashe led the charge for Washington, D.C., to host Citi Open

Ashe wanted to get ‘black faces to come out and watch the tennis’

Arthur Ashe stood in the beaming Fort Worth, Texas, sun near a sign that read “For Members Only” as he waited to receive his trophy for winning the Colonial National Invitational Tournament men’s singles event.

Ashe defeated the world’s No. 2 player, Australia’s Fred Stolle, in straight sets on Sept. 19, 1965. The 22-year-old also teamed with Ham Richardson to beat Stolle and his compatriot, Roy Emerson, in the men’s doubles championship in three sets.

This was the first tournament in the South that Ashe participated in by himself, and it had him on edge. Ashe, known for his easygoing nature and coolness, was anything but as he stood in front of that lily-white crowd.

He spent the tournament surrounded by people who had the same deep Southern accents as the ones who used to torment him in his native Prince Edward County in Virginia.

As the crowd applauded, Ashe thought to himself, “I wonder if these tennis people are being nice to me as a favor or nice because I appeal to them as a person?” he told the Chicago Tribune in a Dec. 1, 1968, profile.

“It’s still the voice I hear in bad dreams in spite of myself. Hearing that deep Southern accent is still a sound that I listen to and approach with extreme caution. I get on the defensive right away and my instincts start whispering, ‘Beware.’ ”

But there were a number of people rooting for Ashe, who he knew were genuinely excited to see him succeed on the court.

“The black help had approached Arthur beaming with confidential smiles,” the Tribune reported. ” ‘Hey, brother, we really took care of business today.’ Arthur always got the fastest Coke at the bar and the largest steak in the dining room.”

It was this experience and more that led to Ashe’s response when approached by Davis Cup captain Donald Dell and his friend John Harris about forming an Association of Tennis Professionals tournament in Washington, D.C.

If he could play in front of an integrated crowd and get “black faces to come out and watch the tennis,” Ashe told the pair, he would play in the tournament.

Those early conversations helped lead to the creation of what is now the Citi Open and its placement in the nation’s capital at Rock Creek Park.

“In those years, most people lived in the city,” said Ashe’s childhood doubles partner, Willis Thomas Jr. “He was able to reach a lot of people that generally would not have seen a tournament before.

“He [also] liked whupping white people’s a–. That’s what it was about, that’s why we played. We played in that arena trying to beat up on white people, who had beaten up on you for so long. That’s the motivation. Even though you didn’t see it in Arthur, and he didn’t let it come out, but if you knew him in private, he cared about that stuff.”

After The Washington Post declined to host the new event, Dell and Harris found an interested party in the Washington Star, leading to the establishment of the Evening Star International Championships. Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, which was created in December 1955 to foster tennis interest among the area’s youths at no cost to them, owned the first tournament.

The championships took place from July 7-13, 1969, with a $25,000 purse and featured members of the Davis Cup team and other international players. The co-founders gave the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, formerly the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, the sanction to hold the tournament in 1972.

“I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without human purpose,” Ashe said in Days of Grace: A Memoir, “without trying to help the poor and unfortunate, without recognizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others.”

After years of playing in front of white fans and at tennis clubs that wouldn’t even consider Ashe for membership, Dell and Harris, who is Jewish and understood not being considered for country club membership, went to work finding a public site in a racially mixed neighborhood.

The trio didn’t know this then, but D.C. was on the verge of becoming “Chocolate City,” the first black major city (peaking at 71 percent in 1970) in the United States.

“I’m quite sure he would really like for black folks to be there watching him and rooting him on,” said Thomas, vice president of programs for Washington Tennis & Education Foundation. “Arthur was a different kind of guy. He was, as they say, ‘a citizen of the world.’ He was one of those special people. But he grew up in black tennis, which he would like people to see.”

On July 13, 1969, white and black tennis fans turned out to see Ashe face off against Brazilian Thomaz Koch in the inaugural Washington Star International singles championship.

On that 91-degree day, Ashe chewed crushed ice to persevere through the sweltering and humid temperatures, while Koch picked leaves off a tree, soaked them and placed them under his headband to keep cool.

Ultimately, Koch bested Ashe in the only five-set men’s singles final in tournament history. Tricia Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s daughter, presented Koch with a green jacket.

Of the 11 times Ashe played in the tournament, he won it only once, in 1973. But Thomas told The Washington Post in 2015 that Ashe’s presence created the impact he wanted to see when he helped bring a pro tournament to D.C.

“Thirty percent of the crowd was African-American, maybe more,” Thomas told the Post‘s Jacob Feldman. “Almost everybody was cheering for Ashe.”

Tournament names through the years:

  • The Washington Star International: 1969-81
  • D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic: 1982-86
  • Sovran Bank Classic: 1987- 92
  • Newsweek Tennis Classic: 1993
  • Legg Mason Tennis Classic: 1994-2011
  • Citi Open: 2012-present

Fast fact:

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.