The Emergence of Ashe | Memories of Arthur’s 1968 Open win


In the summer of 1968, I was 16, fully immersed in tennis, and fortunate to have a father on one side of the Atlantic Ocean and a mother on the other. I had watched with considerable joy as Arthur Ashe made it to the semifinals of the first “Open” Wimbledon that year. At long last, the best players in the world—professional and amateur—were competing together, and Arthur was still an amateur. He made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon before losing to the redoubtable Rod Laver of Australia, the brilliant left-hander who was indisputably the best tennis player of them all at that time. Laver was a heavy favorite to win the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, but he was upended in five sets by Cliff Drysdale in the fourth round. That startling turnabout opened up a sizeable window of opportunity for none other than Arthur Ashe, and I was delighted to be there to see Arthur take advantage of it.

Ashe had never beaten Laver, and not until 1974 would he beat the Australian for the first time. But he loved playing Drysdale, whom he handled comfortably in the quarterfinals. Then Ashe defeated Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner in the semifinals in a match between my two biggest tennis heroes. Ashe collided with the “flying Dutchman” Tom Okker in the championship match, and in the end he overpowered his rival in five sets to take the championship of his country in style. I will never forget sitting there in the stadium for the presentation ceremony as Arthur put his arm around his father, who was overcome with the pride only a parent could feel, the tears filling in his eyes. A poignant picture of the two Ashe’s appeared not long after on the cover of Life Magazine.

It was a tumultuous world in that summer of 1968 after the springtime assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Arthur Ashe—a quietly charismatic yet undemonstrative man, a sportsman of the highest order, a competitor with a dazzling propensity to sprinkle winning shots all over the court—was just the right man at precisely the right time to secure the first U.S. Open event ever played. I was up there in Portal 9 that day, a 16-year-old rooting unabashedly for Ashe, watching this remarkable individual become the first African American man ever to win a major in the world of tennis. That day has lived irrevocably with me ever since.

– Steve Flink, Senior Columnist

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