Arthur Ashe was an American tennis player whose greatness lay not only in his on-court accomplishments, but also in his off-field humanitarian work.
Ashe was a cultural and socio-political icon in more ways than one, using his influence as a tennis celebrity to speak out against racism and spread awareness about AIDS. The first black male to ever win a Grand Slam title, Ashe was an eternal symbol of sportsmanship, generosity, kindness and courage.
Best finish at each of the four Grand Slams:
Australian Open: Champion (1970)
French Open: Quarterfinalist (1970, 1971)
Wimbledon: Champion (1975)
US Open: Champion (1968)
Highest Ranking: No. 2
Style of play, strengths and weaknesses
Ashe was an aggressive player who used his athleticism and feel to repeatedly rush the net and take the attack to the opponent.
The American used his solid serve to win free points as well as set up easy putaways at the net. He could often take his opponents off-guard with the slider out wide in the deuce court, but for the most part reaped the rewards of the flat serve to the right-hander's backhand.
Ashe was one of the best net players of his time, and successfully kept up his all-attack strategy even in the face of a global shift to more baseline play during the late 70s. He covered the net spectacularly with his long reach and reflex moves, and was very difficult to pass.
Ashe could also bring deft variations into his game when the situation demanded it. He famously outwitted Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final by employing a mix of off-pace slices, dinks and lobs to which Connors had no answer.
Significant Arthur Ashe records
Ashe's career was constantly hampered by injuries, segregation and later heart problems, but he still managed to put together an impressive list of accomplishments. Here are his most significant records:
- First black male to win a Grand Slam title (US Open 1968)
- Only player to win both the Amateur and Open versions of a Grand Slam: US Amateur Championships 1968 in Boston, and US Open Championship 1968 in Forest Hills
- First black player to win a a title in South Africa (doubles title at South African Open 1973 with Tom Okker)
- First black player to be selected in the US Davis Cup squad (1963)
Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, but suffered a tragedy in 1950 as his mother Mattie, aged just 27, passed away due to pre-eclampsia. He was subsequently raised by his father Arthur Ashe Sr., who encouraged him to participate in sports.
Ashe started playing tennis at the age of seven, and was coached by Ron Charity and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson in his early years. It was Dr. Johnson who helped inculcate the values of unflinching sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct in Ashe. He also helped him secure admission into Summer High School in St. Louis, after he realized Ashe was being barred from entering tournaments in racially-segregated Richmond.
Ashe served in the US Army from 1966 to 1969, and in 1977 he married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy. The two adopted a daughter in 1986 and named her Camera.
Ashe's family had a history of heart disease, and in 1979 its hereditary nature was reinforced as Ashe himself suffered a heart attack despite being supremely fit. He underwent a bypass surgery to correct the problem, but was forced to undergo another bypass operation in 1983 as he continued experiencing discomfort.
In 1988, Ashe's right arm got paralyzed, and it was then that it was discovered that he was HIV positive. Doctors concluded that Ashe had contracted the virus during his blood transfusion at the time of his second bypass surgery.
Ashe kept the news of his disease away from the public until 1992, after which he became a renowned campaigner for AIDS awareness. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, and became a globally recognized symbol of the fight against the epidemic.
Ashe passed away on 6th February 1993 after contracting pneumonia. His death prompted an outpouring of grief and commiserations from all over the world, and marked the end of an era.
Ashe's legacy transcends the boundaries of sport. He was a great champion on the court, winning 3 Grand Slams and recording several memorable wins throughout his career, but he was one of the very few athletes in history who was also a great champion off the field.
Ashe had to fight at every stage of life; against racism in his youth, against hereditary health problems in his prime, and against disease and public misconceptions towards the end of his life. But he fought it all successfully, and that too with impeccable grace and incomparable patience.
Ashe paved the way for black athletes all over the world, proving time and again that the color of your skin doesn't determine how competitive you can be on the court. He was also a vocal promoter of equality and minority rights, using his celebrity status to effect change in society.
His work for AIDS awareness will go down as a landmark moment in the history of the world. Not only did he spread the word about how being afflicted by the disease doesn't make you an immoral person, he also helped considerably in furthering scientific study to find treatments for AIDS.
Right until the moment he died, Ashe was a personification of everything that makes a champion. He was fiercely competitive when he had to be, but he was also kind, thoughtful, generous, philanthropic and a true revolutionary.
It is no wonder that the biggest court in the world - the Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows - is named after him. The Arthur Ashe award - given out at the ESPY awards to anyone in the sports field who displays unique courage and strength - is also fittingly named after one of the most courageous individuals to ever walk the earth.