This month marks 25 years since three-time Grand Slam tennis champion Arthur Ashe passed away.
The Richmond, Virginia native is best known in modern times for having his name associated with the feature court at Flushing Meadows which hosts the US Open, but his eventful and often tragic life was discussed on this evening’s Off The Ball with the co-author of his memoir Arnold Rampersad.
Ashe was the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team, and also became the first black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. However in the early 1980s Ashe contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during heart bypass surgery. Ashe publicly announced his illness in April 1992 and began working to educate others about HIV and AIDS. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of just 49. The following June, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then US President Bill Clinton.
Arthur Ashe in action against reigning champion Jimmy Connors during the Wimbledon Men's Single Competition.
Ashe lost his mother when he was just 6, leaving him and his brother to be raised by his father Arthur Snr. According to Rampersad “he lived constantly every day with a sense of loss” as result of her death. He took up tennis a year later and was spotted by coach Robert Walter Johnson, who taught him the importance of rejecting racial socialisation by having impeccable sportsmanship and etiquette on court. He was told to return every ball that landed within two inches of a line and to never argue with an umpire’s decision.
He became the first African-American to win the National Junior Indoor title in 1963, and he was able to continue his tennis career despite joining the US Army in 1966 for a three-year spell. It was during this period that Ashe was at his most successful, winning the first US Open of the open era in 1968, the same year he clinched the US Amateur Championships. However he was forced to forego the $14,000 prize money, as claiming it would eliminate him from Davis Cup contention which at the time was still solely played by amateurs. A second Grand Slam would follow in 1970 at the Australian Open.
The next few years were dogged by issues regarding Ashe’s race. He was constantly denied a visa to play in South Africa due to apartheid before finally gaining entry in 1973. He reached the final of the South African Open, and he believed his presence could help break down stereotypes. However four years later he admitted his regret at playing there during the height of racial issues. In the intervening time he clinched his third Grand Slam, beating Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon tournament. The build-up to that final was dominated by a bitter feud between the two, leading to Connors suing Ashe for $5 million due to comments Ashe made about Connors in a letter to ATP members during his tenure as president. Connors would drop the libel suit soon after the final.
Arthur Ashe announces at a press conference in 1992 that he has contracted HIV
Ashe’s post-tennis career was dominated by his work as a tennis analyst and civil rights supporter, and he was twice arrested for attending protests against apartheid and the crackdown on Haitian refugees. His HIV infection came in 1988, but in Rampersad’s words “he showed no bitterness, he accepted it as his fate, he didn’t want to die but he carried on.”
His public announcement about his infection came just a year before his death, and during that time he attempt to clear up the misconception that only homosexuals or IV drug users were at risk for contracting AIDS. He also spoke to the United Nations General Assembly on World AIDS Day, just two months before his death.
You can listen back to our piece about his incredible life story in the below podcast