Arthur Robert Ashe Jr., legendary tennis player,
human rights activist, and educator, was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond,
Virginia, to Arthur Sr. and Mattie Cunningham Ashe. At the age of four, he began playing tennis at
Brook Field, a black-only park where his father worked as caretaker.
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Before she died in 1950, Ashe’s mother taught him the importance of
education. His father, now a single
parent, sponsored his early development in tennis. Ashe developed into a prodigy in the early 1950s
under his lifelong coach Dr. Walter Johnson, who also trained professional
tennis player and golfer Althea Gibson. In
1953, at the age of 10, Ashe won the American Tennis Association’s National Championship for boys 12 years and under. Determined to play in the all-white Junior
United States Tennis
Association (USTA), Ashe broke its racial barrier in 1957 when he competed in Maryland
boys' championships. This led to his
regular inclusion in local summer UTSA tournaments from 1957 to 1960.
In 1960, 17-year-old Ashe first gained national recognition as a high school
student-athlete in Sports Illustrated.
The following year he entered the
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on a full scholarship. In Ashe’s sophomore year he made the 1963 US
Davis Cup team, a feat he repeated from 1964 to 1970 and again in 1975, 1976
and 1978. In 1965 Ashe was named the top-ranked amateur player in men’s tennis and, as
team captain, guided the UCLA tennis team to the NCAA team
championship, winning the individual and doubles titles.
From 1966 to 1968, Ashe attended the US Military
Academy at West Point, New York and graduated with the rank of second
lieutenant. In 1969 he first spoke out
against South African apartheid which he saw as an extension of his fight
against Jim Crow in the United States. From that date he became one of the most outspoken opponents of apartheid,
constantly using his own success to challenge South
Africa. In 1973 he forced concessions which
led to his inclusion in the 1973 South African Open.
a professional tennis player in 1969. In
that year he became the first African American to be ranked number one, a feat
repeated in 1975 after he won Wimbledon. Ashe emerged as a leader among professional
tennis players, co-founding the USTA National Junior Tennis League, which exposed
inner-city youth to tennis, and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Ashe served as its president in 1974 following
a 78-person boycott of Wimbledon.
In 1977 Ashe married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy. Nine years later they had their only child, a daughter
named Camera. Heart complications
stemming from a 1979 heart attack forced Ashe to retire from professional
tennis in 1980, with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses, and 51 titles. In 1985 he was unanimously elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
After his tennis career ended, Ashe became a noted journalist, humanitarian,
and activist. In 1981 he became the
first African American to be named national chairman of the American Heart
Association. As a journalist he wrote
for Tennis Magazine, Time Magazine and The Washington Post. Ashe
was also a tennis commentator for ABC Sports and HBO Sports. He wrote eight books between 1967 and 1995
covering topics such as education, tennis, and African American achievement. He continued his fight against apartheid and
in 1983 became the co-founder of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid.
In the early 1990s, Ashe became an ambassador for AIDS awareness. His concern about AIDS began with his HIV infection
from a tainted blood transfusion during 1983 bypass surgery. By 1988 the infection had progressed from HIV
into full-blown AIDS. The family
publically disclosed his condition on April 8, 1992 at a press conference. Nearly
a year later on February 6, 1993,
Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. died in
New York City. He was buried in the
Governor's Mansion in his native Richmond, an unprecedented honor for an African
American, and the first person to lie in state at the mansion since Confederate
general Stonewall Jackson in 1863.
Posthumously, Ashe has been commemorated with many awards. Most notable are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1993), a
statute on Richmond's Monument Avenue (1996), and, beginning in 1997, the US Open has been played in Arthur
Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park,
New York. Ashe was also honored with a US
postage stamp in 2005.
ArthurAshe.org, http://www.arthurashe.org/; Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersand, Days of Grace: A Memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993); Herbert G. Ruffin, “Arthur Ashe” in Matthew Whitaker, Icons of Black America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2011); Richard Steins, Arthur Ashe: A Biography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005).