Sports · June 21, 2022

Arthur Ashe: the greatest black icon of US sports?

Highlights of the story

Arthur Ashe has won three Grand Slam titles

First African American to achieve the feat of winning a slam

Died at the age of 49 in 1993 of AIDS-related disease as a result of an infected blood transfusion

Flushing Meadows Stadium pitch named in his honor

Editor’s Note: The new CNN film “Citizen Ashe” explores the enduring legacy of tennis legend and humanitarian Arthur Ashe. It airs Sunday, June 26 at 9 p.m. ET / PT. This article was updated on the occasion of the film’s debut.


Tennis hero, inspirational role model for African Americans, social activist and high-profile activist for HIV and AIDS communities, Arthur Ashe died in 1993, but it’s a measure of his influence that, decades later, shines more than never.

The stadium’s main pitch in Flushing Meadows, where the US Open is held, is named in his honor, a stunning statue of Ashe adorns the ground, while Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day is a glittering annual party that kicks off the fortnight. for the grand slam final of the season.

Michelle Obama was the guest of honor in 2013, while Bradley Cooper, Carmelo Anthony, Justin Bieber and Will Ferrell have been placed on an eclectic celebrity roster over the years.

Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe, has made her life the task of ensuring that her late husband’s memory is preserved for generations and presidential approval is the icing on the cake.

“It makes me very proud that Arthur raised his name for kids who didn’t have a clue who he was,” he told CNN’s Open Court program in 2013.

“It was a great honor. I was born and raised in South Chicago, as was Ms. Obama, so sitting here next to her with her daughters was just so much fun.

“And that it’s so supportive of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center and so supportive of Arthur’s legacy. I don’t think we could have asked for a better situation that day, it was just wonderful. ”

Moutoussamy Ashe shared his experiences with former American Davis Cup star James Blake, who retired from the ATP Tour in 2013.

Blake told her that Ashe was her idol and inspiration growing up.

“As an African American who played tennis, his impact on me was great and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, being someone who went to college, was educated and had a huge influence on the world,” he said.

The impact Blake talks about has gone far beyond the narrow confines of professional sport.

Ashe once said, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis achievements” and Moutoussamy Ashe did her best to promote her desire.

“The game of tennis really gave him a platform to talk about the issues he cared about so much,” he said.

“I think he has been a role model for a lot of guys, which is why his legacy is so important to promote today.

“We don’t want an entire generation of kids today and generations to not know he was more than a tennis player.”

Born in 1943, Ashe grew up in the segregated south in Richmond, Virginia, and put his tennis skills to the test for the first time at a black-only playground in town.

He developed his talent in high school and won a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963, becoming the first African American to represent the United States in the Davis Cup that year.

A member of the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), Ashe was eventually forced into military service and spent three years at the United States Military Academy at West Point, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.

Ashe was still an officer on duty when he won his first Grand Slam title at the 1968 US Open, the first of the Open era in which even professionals could compete.

“He was not only the first African American male to win the US Open, but he was actually the first American stint to win the US Open because the US Open didn’t start until 1968,” Moutoussamy Ashe points out.

Ashe was discharged from the army in 1969 and, after winning his second Grand Slam crown at the 1970 Australian Open, turned pro.

A prominent supporter of the American civil rights movement, Ashe’s political principles were put to the test when he was denied a visa by the South African apartheid government to compete in their national open that same year.

Ashe campaigned for the exclusion of South Africa from the International Tennis Federation but, although his demands were not met, he was eventually granted a visa to compete in the 1973 South African Open, the first black male to do so. .

Ashe continued to speak out against the apartheid regime and after Nelson Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison, the tennis star returned to South Africa in 1991 as a member of a 31-person delegation to observe the deep. political changes in the country.

He met Mandela several times and remarked very modestly: “Compared to Mandela’s sacrifice, my own life has been almost one of self-indulgence. When I think of him, my political efforts seem scarce. ”

But others would disagree. Andrew Young, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, once said of Ashe, “He took the weight of the race and wore it as a cloak of dignity.”

Young, a pastor turned prominent politician, presided over Ashe’s wedding to Jeanne in 1977 after they met at a charity event just six months earlier that Moutoussamy Ashe was attending as a professional photographer.

Ashe was now a three-time Grand Slam champion in singles after shocking seeded Jimmy Connors in an epic 1975 Wimbledon final, but it was to prove the last one when the injury and eventual illness took their turn. tribute.

The world was shocked in 1979 when super fit Ashe suffered a heart attack and underwent a bypass operation.

He was due to return to the tennis tour when further complications arose and was forced to announce his retirement, doing so in a typically meticulous manner.

“He had about 30 letters he had individually written to people, contracts he had, promises and commitments he had with people, he wrote them in person and said, ‘I’m retiring and I want you to be the first to know,'”, recalled Moutoussamy Ashe.

Retired, he assumed the position of captain of the United States Davis Cup team, but in 1983 had to undergo a second round of heart surgery in New York.

It was during this operation that Ashe is believed to have contracted HIV from infected blood transfusions.

He learned of the diagnosis in 1988 after another health scare, but for the sake of two-year-old adopted daughter Camera, Ashe and his wife kept the disease private.

Only in 1992 was he forced to go public and, true to his ideals, he began a campaign to dispel the myths about AIDS and how it is contracted.

He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids to build on the work of an institute he had set up to promote public health.

Ashe completed her memoir, Days of Grace, shortly before her death on February 6, 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

For Blake, the book was an inspiration. “As soon as I read ‘Days of Grace’, it was always my answer to what is your favorite book of all time,” he told Moutoussamy Ashe.

Young officiated at Ashe’s funeral in Richmond, which was attended by thousands of mourners. He was buried with his mother, Mattie, who died in 1950 when he was just six.

Later in the year she died, Ashe posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.

It was the first in a series of high-profile honors in recognition of a truly extraordinary man, but for his widow, who has carried his torch for so many years, it’s his impact on communities and younger generations that is so. important.

“I think if Arthur were here today, he would be promoting tennis to the grassroots level, drawing that metaphor that tennis is not just a sport, but more importantly, a profession that could get you a scholarship to get you out of school,” she said.

Others like Blake and Mal Washington have followed in Ashe’s footsteps on the male side of the men’s game, but Moutoussamy Ashe is equally happy with the impact the Williams sisters have had on African American sport.

“Venus and Serena, I’m so proud of what they’re both doing. Venus has her challenges of hers but she is carrying on her life and she still gets very involved in the game of tennis whenever she can.

“I think Serena has been in top form, not just in tennis but as a person during this particular US Open,” he added, reflecting on the 17th singles crown of the world’s number 1 Grand Slam.

Moutoussamy Ashe hopes that the Arthur Ashe Learning Center, which contains a wide range of photographs and memorabilia collected during his lifetime, will find a permanent home.

“It is really important that not only today’s generation, but also generations to come, understand him as something more than just an athlete, as something more than just a patient, as something more than just a student and coach.

“That they will understand the importance of being a well-rounded human being, that you may not be a great champion, but if you are a well-rounded human being, then you can do anything to be successful in life. ”

Ashe himself is the perfect example of this, battling his modest background and an undercurrent of prejudice to achieve the highest honor that can be bestowed on an individual in the United States.

“Racism is no excuse for not doing the best you can,” Ashe said and he is an eloquent testament to the truth of his words.