How Arthur Ashe Transformed Tennis—and Athlete Activism - HISTORY

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Having grown up in the segregated South, Ashe became the first black man to win the U.S. Open in 1968. The victory helped him find his voice on a wide array of social-justice issues.

Amidst all the convulsions America experienced in 1968—the shocking assassinations, the violent protests, the atrocities in Vietnam—revolution rumbled even through the genteel world of men’s tennis. The unexpected messenger was a slender, bespectacled 25-year-old Army lieutenant on temporary leave from his post at West Point.

His name? Arthur Ashe.

The revolution Ashe fomented would be felt not only on the court of play, but in broader social and political spheres. He was the Jackie Robinson of men’s tennis, piercing the exclusivity of a lily-white sport and shouldering burdens that tested his character and resolve at every turn. And he emerged at the height of the U.S. civil-rights movement to become the first African-American male to win a Grand Slam. (Ashe, still an amateur in 1968, won the U.S. Open that year, the first-ever year of the tournament.) But he didn’t stop there. He went on to dominate his sport, to help desegregate it—and then to transcend it, becoming a fierce and eloquent activist for an array of causes, including civil rights, economic empowerment, opposition to Apartheid and AIDS awareness.

Ashe’s unexpected triumph at Forest Hills, the venerable site where the U.S. national championships were played until 1977, was only one of the many events that made 1968 a signal year of surprises. Indeed, just as the players were gathering at Forest Hills on August 29 for the opening round of the first U.S. Open, the nation was transfixed by thousands of antiwar activists protesting outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The drama that would soon unfold at Forest Hills, where a black amateur upstart triumphed over the best professional tennis players in the world—though mild in comparison to the jarring effects of political strife—echoed the unsettled spirit of the times.

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe reaching for a return, 1969.

U.S. tennis ‘opens’ up

The 1968 U.S. Open marked a departure that would revolutionize the game of competitive tennis over the next half century. Following the example of England and France earlier in the year, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) abandoned its 87-year-old amateurs-only tradition, helping to usher in an age of professionalization, commercialization and media exposure that turned touring tennis pros into celebrities.

None of this was assured at the outset of the Open era, when many observers questioned the viability of melding the amateur and professional tours. As play began at the first U. S. Open, virtually everyone expected the pros—who occupied the top four seeds—to dominate the tournament. Even Arthur Ashe, the highest seeded amateur at #5, was thought to have little chance of surviving past the quarterfinals.

Ashe was coming off an impressive victory at the National Amateur tournament held in Boston the week before the Open. The top-ranked amateur in the nation, he had amassed a considerable record of achievement during nearly a decade of play, capturing four national amateur singles titles, leading UCLA to the 1965 NCAA team championship while winning both the singles and doubles titles, and excelling as a member of the U.S. Davis Cup squad.

Not that it was as easy as he made it look. A racial pioneer who had risen above the Jim Crow restrictions of his Virginia boyhood, Ashe gained national attention as the first black man to reach the highest echelon of amateur tennis. Of the 128 players in the men’s draw at the first U.S. Open, he was the lone African American—in his words, as “noticeable as the only raisin in a rice pudding.” Barred from playing against whites in his hometown of Richmond until 1966, he continued to face racial discrimination at many private tennis clubs, especially in the South. “Get the nigger off the court,” one white patron screamed in March 1969 while he was practicing at a country club in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The determined amateur slices through the pros

Ashe was known for his great backhand, his hammering serve, a calm and gracious demeanor and an almost unparalleled commitment to sportsmanship. But these assets didn’t initially appear to be enough to overcome the experience and talent of the best pros at the Open. He had never beaten the #1 seed, the great Australian Rod Laver, losing to him most recently in the 1968 Wimbledon semifinals. And even if Laver somehow faltered in the early rounds, the young amateur still had the other Aussie pros—Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Roy Emerson—to contend with. Also lurking in the draw was his boyhood idol, the legendary champion Pancho Gonzales, attempting a comeback at age 40.

To reach the finals, Ashe would not only have to play well; he would also need an upset or two to help clear his path to the top. This scenario seemed highly improbable as the tournament began, but when a string of upsets materialized—starting with Laver, Roche and Emerson in the fourth round—Ashe sensed fate had somehow intervened. When Newcombe and Gonzales were upended in the quarterfinals, only Rosewall and the fleet-footed Dutchman Tom Okker remained.

In the semifinals, Okker eliminated Rosewall, while Ashe upended his Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner, the #7 seed, in four tough sets. The match, one of the most famous of Ashe’s career, was immortalized by the journalist John McPhee in a remarkable series of New Yorker articles later published in book form as Levels of the Game. A masterpiece of close analysis, the book would add color, literally and figuratively, to the historic aura surrounding the first U.S. Open.

Emphasizing the stark contrast between the two players—one black, Southern and quietly determined to make his mark; the other white, Midwestern and seemingly self-satisfied with his upper-middle-class life—McPhee noted that even their equipment clashed. Graebner used a Wilson T-2000 metal racket, introduced to the tour the previous year, while Ashe still relied on a traditional wood-frame racket. As amateurs they were removed from the high-stakes commercialism that was revolutionizing the tennis world, but their primal semifinal contest made good copy and good television.

1968 US Open

Arthur Ashe holding his trophy after defeating Tom Okker (left), of the Netherlands, to win the 1968 U.S. Open at Forest Hills.

After 26 aces, an emotional triumph on center court

Ashe’s championship match against Okker produced its own five-set drama. Using pinpoint backhands and blistering serves—including 26 aces—Ashe neutralized Okker’s speed and mobility, finally surging ahead in the fifth set after nearly three hours of back-and-forth momentum swings.

Ultimately, he had too much firepower for the Dutchman.

For Ashe, not given to on-court displays of emotion, the scene following the final point was one of the most memorable moments of his life. “My father came on to the court with me,” he recalled in 1981, “and it felt wonderful to share that moment with him… I laughed and hugged my father. He was crying… When he said, ‘Well done, son,’ I knew how much that moment must have meant to him.” The next day, one journalist commented: “Perhaps with more than 7,000 fans standing and applauding yesterday, his father’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. finally believed he belonged.”

For both father and son, the crowd’s expression of respect and affection confirmed that the world of tennis, once the whitest of sports, had shed at least some of its traditional attachment to racial exclusivity.

Joining the star-player club

The first U.S. Open had proven to be a milestone not only in the relationship between amateurs and professionals but also in the desegregation of tennis. The tournament would alter Ashe’s life beyond recognition, even though its immediate impact was limited by his official amateur status. Since he could not claim the winner’s share of the prize money, the $14,000 check went instead to Okker as the runner-up. This was a sizable sum in 1968, particularly for a young man of limited means. But, fortunately for Ashe, the lost prize money would prove inconsequential compared with the other benefits, financial and otherwise, he received in the wake of his historic Grand Slam victory.

The unexpected triumph at Forest Hills established Ashe as a bona fide star, enhancing his confidence and visibility. As the first U.S. Open men’s singles champion, he attained celebrity that set him apart from the other up-and-coming players on the tour. His prospects for a successful professional tennis career were no longer in doubt, and six months later, following his discharge from the Army, he turned pro amidst considerable fanfare. As Open tennis took hold, his earning potential skyrocketed, and by September 1970 he had signed one of the most lucrative contracts in tennis history: a multimillion-dollar commitment from Lamar Hunt, the promoter of the new World Championship Tennis tour.

Ashe also scored several major product-endorsement offers, most notably agreements to represent Catalina Sports Clothes and Head rackets. This made him the first African-American athlete to buck the conventional wisdom that such endorsements were commercially unfeasible. Before long, his widespread popularity among white as well as black consumers helped usher in endorsement opportunities for other black athletes.

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe in Sydney, Australia in December 1976 to play in the Telecom Challenge tournament, pictured with a Head racket. Ashe was the first African-American athlete to receive lucrative endorsement deals, and ushered in the possibility for future black sports figures. 

Raising his voice

The U.S. Open title helped to make Ashe rich and famous, but for him, sports celebrity served mostly as a platform for public influence and social action. More than any other athlete of his era, he used his fortune and fame for purposes beyond personal happiness and self-indulgence.

Earlier in his life, Ashe had been too shy and reticent—and too preoccupied with his tennis career—to speak out on public issues or to become involved in the civil-rights movement. In fact, given his impeccable manners, self-effacing style and early training to be deferent and turn the other cheek, he was sometimes labeled as an “Uncle Tom” figure. But during the year preceding his Open victory, Ashe had experienced a social and political awakening that opened his mind and spirit to the task of bringing liberty and justice to an imperfect world burdened by racism, poverty and the legacy of colonialism. Amidst the turmoil of 1968, he found his public voice.

Rather than giving in to disillusionment following the King and Kennedy assassinations, he became passionately engaged in the struggle for racial and social justice, partly as an attempt to compensate for his inaction earlier in the decade. “There were times, in fact,” he recalled years later, “when I felt a burning sense of shame that I was not with other blacks—and whites—standing up to the fire hoses and the police dogs, the truncheons, bullets, and bombs that cut down such martyrs as Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and the four little girls in that bombed church in Birmingham, Alabama. As my fame increased, so did my anguish.”

Arthur Ashe surrounded by black youths while visiting Soweto, South Africa. 

Arthur Ashe surrounded by black youths while visiting Soweto, South Africa. 

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ashe, ever aware of having grown up poor in the segregated South, dedicated most of his political activity to expanding educational and employment opportunities among disadvantaged inner-city youth and to fighting the scourge of apartheid in South Africa. Despite criticism from some black South Africans that an American man should be fighting their fight, he persisted in trying to push aside barriers in the country, on the tennis court and beyond. In 1983 he teamed with singer and activist Harry Belafonte to found Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, which pushed for sanctions and embargoes against the South African government. Two years later, he was arrested while protesting outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.

He eventually widened his public advocacy to a broad range of social and political causes, including support for gender equity and fair treatment for Haitian refugees. Fiercely independent, he avoided ideological orthodoxy and expressed his views as a public intellectual in a calm, deliberative style that often masked his passion for radical reform. In 1977, he published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “An Open Letter to Black Parents—Send Your Children to Libraries,” encouraging them to foster their children’s intellectual lives and think beyond the long-shot pathways to success in America such as sports and entertainment.

In the years following his Open triumph, Ashe continued to excel as a professional athlete, eventually winning more than 50 tournaments and two more Grand Slam titles—the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975—before his retirement in 1980. But his greatest achievements occurred off the court. By the end of his life—cut short by a blood transfusion that led to AIDS and a tragic death in 1993—he had become a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world,” earning wide respect as a forceful civil-rights activist, a writer and public intellectual who explored the often difficult history of black athletes, a humanitarian philanthropist, a talented broadcaster and an unrivaled ambassador of sportsmanship and fair play.

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe addresses a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting on World AIDS Day in December, 1992. Ashe spoke out on AIDS issues since revealing that he contracted the virus through a blood transfusion. 

Dying with purposeful dignity after devoting the last 10 months of his life to AIDS awareness, he became a role model for millions of Americans, leaving a legacy as the most honored and beloved figure in tennis. More than any other athlete of the modern era—with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali—he transcended the world of sports.

In late August 2018, amidst the excitement of the 50th U.S. Open, several tennis commentators reflected on the dignity and integrity of the tournament's first men's singles champion. His name, they pointed out, fittingly had graced the world's largest tennis stadium for more than 20 years. What they didn't say, however—fearing the appearance of political partisanship—was anything about his continued relevance in an era plagued with bitter exchanges over the right and responsibility of athletes to speak their mind. While Arthur Ashe did not live long enough to "take a knee" for social justice, there can be little doubt that he would applaud the courage of Colin Kaepernick and the other brave dissenters perpetuating his legacy of activism and political engagement.

Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, is the author of Arthur Ashe: A Life.

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