Childhood / Formative Years
On July 10, 1943 Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born to parents Arthur Sr. and Mattie C. Ashe in Richmond, Virginia. Arthur began learning tennis from an early age, in part because his father took a post at Brook Field in 1947. The position came with a house that was located in the middle of the blacks-only playground at Brook Field, which was an 18-acre park that included tennis courts. At the same time as he was playing tennis, he was an avid reader and straight A student. In 1950, a few months before Arthur’s 7th birthday, his mother died of complications from surgery. In 1950 Arthur met Ronald Charity, one of the best black tennis players in the nation and a part-time tennis coach, who took an interest in Arthur. He began working with him regularly, teaching him strokes and proper form. By 1953 it was apparent that Arthur had a talent for tennis but needed a proper coach in order to keep improving. At this point Charity introduced him to Dr. Walter Johnson, who would become his lifelong coach and mentor. Dr. Johnson was also the coach of the only African-American competing in world tennis at that time, Althea Gibson.
Arthur continued with his tennis under Johnson’s instruction and in 1958 became the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships. This was also his first integrated tennis competition. During the summer Arthur could travel and participate in competitive tournaments around the country; during the school year his competition was much more limited because he was limited to black opponents from Richmond and there were only outdoor tennis courts for blacks. In order for him to continue his tennis, he was sent away before beginning his senior year in high school to St. Louis, Missouri. He stayed with a friend of Johnson, Richard Hudlin and enjoyed a number of strong tennis opponents. At this time he was also making a name for himself, having won multiple junior tennis tournaments around the nation and being featured in the December 12, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated as a Face in the Crowd. It was at this time that the University of California, Los Angeles offered him a full scholarship to attend college there.
Upon graduating from high school first in his class, Arthur went to UCLA, which had one of the best college tennis programs. Playing there brought him more recognition amongst tennis enthusiasts. That year he was also named 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. As a sophomore at UCLA, Arthur was featured again in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd as an up and coming athlete of some note. During his time in college he maintained good grades while pursuing tennis. He was active in other things, joining the Upsilon chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity on campus. In 1966 Arthur 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 Arthur had in 1965 won the individual NCAA championship and had significantly contributed to UCLA’s winning the team NCAA tennis championship.
Following school Arthur served his country, joining the U.S. Army from 1966-68. While stationed at West Point in New York, he eventually reached the rank of first lieutenant. During his time in the army he continued to play tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other tournaments.
Still an amateur, Arthur triumphed over Tom Okker of the Netherlands on September 9, 1968 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.
Upon returning to West Point, Arthur entered the dining hall that evening where, unexpectedly, everyone gave him a enthusiastic standing ovation. Soon thereafter in 1969 Arthur 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.
The program was designed to expose children to tennis who might not otherwise have opportunities to play while fostering a sense of discipline and attention to academics.
This was the first of many programs with which Arthur would become involved, many of them focusing on youths, minorities, education, tennis, or some intersection thereof. For Arthur, however, the tennis programs he was involved with were not oriented toward producing professional athletes but instead used tennis as a vehicle for teaching life skills.
In 1969 Arthur first applied for a visa to travel to South Africa and 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.
He continued to keep applying for visas, and the country continued to deny him. In protest he used this example of discrimination to campaign for the expulsion of the nation from the International Lawn Tennis Federation. This was the beginning of his activism against Apartheid, which would become a central issue to him for the next two decades.
In January of 1970 Arthur 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 Arthur’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.
South Africa eventually granted Arthur a visa in 1973. 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.
1975 would prove a banner year for Arthur. 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. This year he also attained the #1 men’s ranking in the world.
In 1976 Arthur 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 Arthur 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 decided to retire from tennis with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles.
Arthur’s retirement from tennis in no way meant slowing down. He took on many new tasks: writing for Time Magazine, the Washington Post and Tennis Magazine; commentating for ABC Sports; and continuing his activism against the South African Apartheid regime. That same year, in fact, he was appointed captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Under his leadership—including members such as John McEnroe, Peter Fleming and Jimmy Connors over his period as captain—the U.S. won the Davis Cup in 1981 and 1982. In 1981 he also served as national chairman of the American Heart Association.
In 1983 Arthur 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. Two years later the immense courage of his convictions were displayed when he was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid protest on January 11, 1985. That same year his career was officially commemorated by his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.
The next year marked another very important milestone for Arthur Ashe. 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.
After feeling numbness in his right hand, Arthur was hospitalized again in 1988. 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.
Continuing to work he returned to South Africa again in 1991 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. His commitment and efforts toward this cause were such that when Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner of the South African government for 27 years, was first set free and was asked whom in the U.S. he wished to have visit, he said, “How about Arthur Ashe?”
In 1992 the newspaper USA Today contacted him about reports of his illness, which had hitherto been secret. Arthur decided to preempt the paper and go public on his own terms holding a press conference with his wife on April 8, 1992 to announce that he had contracted AIDS. This incited a whirlwind of publicity and attention, which Arthur 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 the last year of his life he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised money for research into treating, curing and preventing AIDS, the end goal being the eradication of the disease. He also spoke before the U.N. General Assembly on World AIDS day imploring the delegates to increase funding for AIDS research and discussing the need to address AIDS as a world issue, anticipating the global spread of the disease in the coming years. He also continued his activism in other sectors. He was arrested during a protest against U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees outside the White House. That year Arthur 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.
Two months before his death he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, to help address issues of inadequate health care delivery to urban minority populations. He also dedicated time in his last few months to writing “Days of Grace,” his memoir that he finished only days before his death.
On February 6, 1993 Arthur 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. Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor who had married Arthur, delivered the eulogy.
On what would have been Arthur’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 Arthur would not even have been able to visit Monument Avenue because of the color of his skin. Arthur is depicted carrying books in one hand and a tennis racket in the other, symbolizing his love of knowledge and tennis. 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.