If today, the likes of Serena and sister Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Coco Gauff are hugging the limelight, one figure deserves some praise and that fellow is Arthur Robert Ashe Jr.
Ashe was the first black man to win the U.S. Open, indicating that people of colour could play tennis and excel at it.
Ashe was dominant on the tennis field as he was away from it. Among his pioneering efforts, he produced a book on the exploits of black athletes in America and battled South Africa’s Apartheid regime to open up the game so he and other people of colour could play.
He also campaigned for more funding to treat and better manage AIDS, which he got after infected blood was transferred to him during his heart surgery.
Given how lucrative the sport is now, one would take the winning sums paid for granted but it was battled for by Arthur and like-minded folks.
The first U.S. Open, in 1968, awarded a total of $100,000 in prize money. The men’s champion, Ashe, was slated to earn $14,000 of that, but due to his amateur status, he was ineligible to receive the prize money and brought home just a $20 per diem. Only 6% of the total – $6,000 – went to the women’s champion, Virginia Wade.
Since then, the prize money at the tournament has skyrocketed. Plus, women achieved pay parity in 1973, when both champions received checks for $25,000. The men’s and women’s champions earned six figures for the first time in 1983 ($120,000) and seven figures for the first time in 2003 ($1,000,000).
At the 2019 Open, champions Rafael Nadal of Spain and Bianca Andreescu of Canada both collected $3.85 million checks. The runners-up, Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Serena Williams of the U.S., earned about half that amount: $1.9 million.
The life and times of Ashe, one of tennis’ most impressive figures
On July 10, 1943, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born to parents Arthur Sr. and Mattie C. Ashe in Richmond, Virginia.
In 1947, Ashe began learning tennis from an early age. He was a straight A student, combining learning and playing tennis effortlessly.
In 1950, a few months before Ashe’s 7th birthday, his mother died of complications from surgery. In 1950, Ashe met Ronald Charity, one of the best black tennis players in the nation and a part-time tennis coach, who took an interest in him.
By 1953, it was apparent that Ashe had a talent for tennis but needed a proper coach in order to keep improving. At this point, Charity introduced him to Walter Johnson, who would become his lifelong coach and mentor. Johnson was also the coach of the only African-American competing in world tennis at that time, Althea Gibson.
In 1958, Ashe became the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships. This was also his first integrated tennis competition. During the summer, Ashe could travel and participate in competitive tournaments around the country. During the school year, his competition was limited to black opponents from Richmond and there were only outdoor tennis courts for blacks.
On the December 12, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated, he appeared as a Face in the Crowd. At this time, the University of California, Los Angeles, offered him a full scholarship to attend college there. He was called to the U.S. Davis Cup team as its first African-American player. He continued to play on the team until 1970, and then again in 1975, 1976 and 1978.
In 1966, Ashe graduated with a degree in business administration, the first member on the paternal side of his family to graduate college. In addition to finishing his studies, Ashe had, in 1965, won the individual NCAA championship and had significantly contributed to UCLA’s winning the team NCAA tennis championship.
From 1966-68, Ashe joined the U.S. Army while stationed at West Point in New York, eventually reaching the rank of second lieutenant. During his time in the army, he continued to play tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other tournaments.
On September 9, 1968, as an amateur, Ashe triumphed over Tom Okker of the Netherlands to win the first U.S. Open. Unfortunately, because of his amateur status, he could not accept the prize money, which was given to Okker despite his loss. He is the only African-American man to ever win the title.
In 1969, Ashe co-founded the National Junior Tennis League with Charlie Pasarell, a tennis player who later went on to be a tournament director and commentator, and Sheridan Snyder, a tennis enthusiast.
In 1969, Ashe first applied for a visa to travel to South Africa and to compete in the South African Open. At the time, the country’s government enforced a strict policy of racial segregation called Apartheid. Because of this, they denied him a South African visa despite his number 1 U.S. ranking.
In January of 1970, Ashe won the Australian Open, the second of his three career Grand Slam singles titles. By the early 70s, he had become one of the most famous tennis players.
Along with Ashe’s growing celebrity status, the sport of tennis was becoming more and more popular. However, the earnings of tennis players did not reflect the increased interest and therefore revenue.
In response to this, he partnered in creating the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 with Jack Kramer and others. The ATP was formed to represent the interests of male tennis pros. Prior to its formation, players had less control over their earnings or their tournament schedule. Two years later, he was elected as the President of ATP.
In 1973, South Africa eventually granted Ashe a visa. He was the first black pro to play in the national championships there, where he reached the singles finals and won the doubles title with Tom Okker.
On July 5, 1975, he defeated the heavily favored Jimmy Connors in four sets to win the Wimbledon singles title. He was the first and only black man to win the most prestigious grass-court tournament attaining the #1 men’s ranking in the world.
In 1976, Ashe met Jeanne Moutoussamy, a photographer, who he married on February 20, 1977. The ceremony was held at the United Nations chapel in New York and was presided over by Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
In 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack while holding a tennis clinic in New York. He was hospitalized for ten days afterwards and later that year, underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. He continued to suffer chest pains though, and in 1980, he decided to retire from tennis with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles.
In 1981, Ashe was appointed captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. That same year, and in 1982, the U.S. won the Davis Cup. In 1981, he also served as national chairman of the American Heart Association.
In 1983, Ashe went through a second bypass surgery. After the operation, in order to accelerate his recovery, he received a blood transfusion. It was this transfusion that resulted in him contracting human immunodeficiency virus or HIV.
Also in 1983, along with Harry Belafonte, he founded Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, which worked toward raising awareness of Apartheid policies and lobbying for sanctions and embargoes against the South African government.
On January 11, 1985, in Washington during an anti-Apartheid protest, he was arrested outside the South African embassy. That same year, his career was officially commemorated by his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.
On December 21, 1986, his daughter, Camera, was born. Around this time, he also agreed to teach a course at Florida Memorial College, “The Black Athlete in Contemporary Society.”
In preparation for this, he searched libraries for a book detailing history of Black Americans in sports up through the present. The most up-to-date and comprehensive text available was from 20 years before. This was the inspiration for him to begin work on his 3-volume book “A Hard Road To Glory,” which was published in 1988.
During this period, he also founded the ABC Cities Tennis Program, the Athlete-Career Connection, and the Safe Passage Foundation.
In 1988, Ashe was hospitalized again after feeling numbness in his right hand. Tests showed that he had a bacterial infection called toxoplasmosis, most often present in people with HIV. After further testing, it was revealed that he had HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. This information was kept private at the time.
In 1991, Ashe returned to South Africa again to witness the change to which his tireless work had contributed. As part of a 31-member delegation, he got to observe the political changes in the country as it began repealing apartheid legislation and moving toward integration.
On April 8, 1992, Ashe held a press conference with his wife to announce that he had contracted AIDS. This incited a whirlwind of publicity and attention, which Ashe used to raise awareness about AIDS and its victims.
In his memoir “Days of Grace”, he wrote: “I do not like being the personification of a problem, much less a problem involving a killer disease, but I know I must seize these opportunities to spread the word.”
In 1993, Ashe was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, an honor bestowed upon “the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement,” undoubtedly due to his incessant work and indefatigable spirit.
On February 6, 1993, Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia in New York at the age of 49. His body was laid in state at the Governor’s Mansion in his hometown of Richmond, VA.
He was the first person to lie in state at the mansion since the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in 1863. More than 5,000 people lined up to walk past the casket. His funeral was attended by nearly 6,000 people, including New York City mayor David Dinkins, Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and Rainbow Coalition chairman Jesse Jackson.
On what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday, July 10, 1996, a statue of him was dedicated on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Before this, Monument Avenue had commemorated Confederate war heroes. In fact, as a child, Ashe would not even have been able to visit Monument Avenue because of the color of his skin.
In 1997, the USTA announced that the new center stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center would be named Arthur Ashe Stadium, commemorating the life of the first U.S. Open men’s champion in the place where all future U.S. Open champions will be determined.