In 1968, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr., an amateur, was the first American man in 13 years to win the US Open, and he was the first black man to win any of the Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open). "The triumph was the most notable achievement made in the sport by a Negro male athlete," wrote Dave Anderson in The New York Times.
Ashe's 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory against Holland's Tom Okker was hardly a fluke. He had just won the U.S. amateur championship 15 days before the US Open final, and he had been the No. 2-ranked amateur in the United States the previous three years.
"This week, at least, Ashe proved himself the best player in the world," the legendary Jack Kramer said on TV.
As a measure of the magnitude of Ashe's groundbreaking win, on the very day he won the U.S. amateur championship, The New York Times ran a story that told of Washington, D.C.-area country clubs that refused to have its teams compete in a league in which one team had a "Negro" player.
Ashe started playing tennis when he was 7 years old, taking lessons from Ronald Charity, the best black tennis player in Richmond at the time. Playing on courts in the playground Ashe's father supervised, Ashe picked up the game very quickly. Charity, in fact, passed Ashe on to Dr. Robert Walter Johnson when Ashe was 10.
Today, that would be like someone taking a promising junior to a world-renowned tennis academy. Dr. Johnson coached many of the top black players in those days, including Althea Gibson, who became the first black player to win a Grand Slam tournament when she won the French championship in 1956. Ashe spent summers with Dr. Johnson in Lynchburg, Va., from the time he was 10 until he was 18. By then, Ashe was the best black tennis player in the country and one of the best, period. He won the national high school singles championship in 1961.
Two years later, Ashe became a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team and contributed to the United States winning the title for the first time in five years.
Ashe won 50 championships (singles and doubles) after the 1968 US Open, including Wimbledon in 1975. He defeated Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final, one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. But Ashe was not surprised.
"I believed that I would win," he wrote in his book, Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion. "I don't mean I thought I would win. I understood that I would win."
Suddenly, four years later, Ashe had a heart attack, forcing him into retirement.
As his legacy shows, his was hardly a passive retirement. Ashe accepted the United States Tennis Association's offer to be captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in the fall of 1980, and from 1981-85, he guided the team to two Davis Cup titles and a 13-3 record.
Ashe, after Davis Cup, entered the phase of his life that has had the most lasting impact. He became "Citizen Ashe."
"What I don't want is to be thought of - when all is said and done - as a great tennis player," Ashe says in the HBO documentary "Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World." "That's no contribution to make to society."
Ashe spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. He championed the cause of Haitians who viewed U.S. immigration policy as a double standard favoring Cubans. Though his point of view was not always understood, he spoke out for self-improvement among blacks in the United States.
Among his contributions to that end was A Hard Road to Glory, a three-volume history of the black athlete in America. Ashe spent six years researching and writing these books. Following their publication in 1988, he turned them into an Emmy-winning docu-drama.
It was during this time that Ashe learned he had AIDS. He contracted the disease from infected blood he received during a 1983 heart operation. He was forced to tell the world his plight in 1992. One year later, he died.
Ashe seems destined to remain an essential part of tennis in the United States, however. Soon after his announcement that he had AIDS, he established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He worked with the USTA to produce the Arthur Ashe AIDS Tennis Challenge as a fund-raiser preceding the 1992 US Open. The event's success has evolved into the annual US Open kickoff and charity event, Arthur Ashe Kids' Day.
In 1997, the USTA named the new stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., for Ashe. Arthur Ashe Stadium now stands as the centerpiece of the most spectacular public tennis facility in the world.
"Arthur Ashe was a citizen, a humanitarian, an ambassador and a role model," USTA President Harry Marmion said when announcing the stadium name. "The fact that the tennis court was his stage should make everyone, who loves the sport as he did, very proud."
Ashe was again honored by the USTA at the 2009 US Open, when, prior to the men's semifinal match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, former President Bill Clinton, who met the legend in 1992 and posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, inducted him into the US Open Court of Champions.