Arthur Ashe: The grace of a champion

Steve Flink | February 02, 2021

Defining the essence of Arthur Ashe is no facile task. One of the most multi-faceted individuals tennis has ever known, a man much larger than the game he played, a fellow who explored the boundaries of his potential on and off the court, he was held in the highest esteem by players, press and public alike. Ashe established himself as not only one of the greatest American players of all time but also the most important of his era. He became the first Black man ever to win a Grand Slam title when he captured the first US Open in 1968, and took two more majors thereafter. He was a transcendent sports figure.


Ashe grew up in Richmond, Va. and was guided in his formative years as a player by Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson on his training grounds in Lynchburg, Va. Johnson influenced Ashe in a multitude of ways, above all in shaping Ashe’s demeanor and outlook. “Those whom the gods wish to destroy,” he told the young Ashe, “they first make mad.”


The message resonated. Ashe was the master of self-restraint across his lifetime. He found his footing in many ways as a player at UCLA, winning the prestigious NCAA Championships in 1965, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Championships later that year with a big win over defending champion Roy Emerson. That was a crucial year in his evolution as a player.

But 1968 was a landmark season for Ashe as he led the U.S. to victory in the Davis Cup and captured that first US Open as an amateur while he was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. That triumph altered his life forever. He was no longer simply a prominent tennis player; now he was a renowned black athlete with a growing platform to express his views and, as he saw it, an obligation to represent himself honorably. He was a sportsman of the highest order.


Two years later, Ashe won the Australian Open. In 1975, he engineered a stunning upset victory over Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final. Ashe’s explosive and adventuresome attacking game—featuring one of the biggest and best serves of his time and a spectacular backhand— contrasted sharply with his stoical demeanor. That made him all the more alluring as a performer.


There were many other milestones. In 1973 he made his first journey to Johannesburg for the South African Open, and reached the singles final, but the essential triumph was simply showing up and highlighting the fight against apartheid. A cluster of American reporters followed Ashe’s every move on that trip, and his “gradualist” approach to bringing about change was richly rewarded.


In 1970, Ashe joined forces with his close friend Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder to found the National Junior Tennis League, which combined tennis and education to benefit countless inner city youth and minority participants. Now the USTA Foundation NJTL network, NJTL was one of his most significant and least-heralded achievements, and he was enormously proud of it.


Ashe took pride in all of his endeavors, from the superb tennis commentary he did primarily on ABC, to a comprehensive three-volume book set he wrote on black American athletes called “A Hard Road to Glory,” to brilliantly crafted columns for the Washington Post, to a multitude of other ventures. As captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1981-85, Ashe not only led his squad to two titles, but he was also always a model of decorum in the captain’s chair. Among his star players were the contentious Connors and John McEnroe.


At one point, Ashe received more than three dozen letters from respected tennis figures urging him to throw McEnroe off the team. But Ashe stood by McEnroe. Remarkably tolerant and fundamentally fair, he said, “I haven’t given up on the guy. He isn’t completely wrong about his grievances with officials.”


That was Ashe—always able to forgive others for their transgressions yet forever demanding nothing less than exemplary conduct from himself. He was clear in his convictions. And he approached civil rights on his own terms, speaking unfailingly with a voice of reason, making his case in a measured yet powerful manner.

Ashe lived an immensely productive life, handling hard news with equanimity. Still ranked No. 7 in the world when he had his first heart attack in 1979, he retired from tennis at 36. In 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS, contracted from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He was only 45. But Ashe even took this devastating blow with singular grace, class and courage, and did much to raise public awareness about AIDS. He passed away at age 49 on February 6, 1993. Four years later, the USTA fittingly named their new US Open show court “Arthur Ashe Stadium.”


Perhaps no one captured Ashe’s essence more accurately than his friend Bill Bradley, the former basketball player and United States senator. At Ashe’s memorial in 1993, Bradley said, “Arthur did not boast. He thought before he spoke. Like a good poet he used silence to his advantage and made his restraint a strength. He believed what he believed and knew why he believed it.”


Arthur Ashe was revered by not only the tennis community but the world at large for his intellectual firepower. He masterfully controlled his emotions with steely resolve and extraordinary discipline, convincing even his skeptics with the power of his ideas, the clarity of his mind and the depth of his convictions. He was an ambassador without portfolio, our sport’s conscience, and as virtuous a champion as the game has ever known.

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