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Remembering Arthur Ashe

Ashe© AFP/Getty ImagesArthur Ashe addresses a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting on the World AIDS Day in December 1992.

Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of the passing of tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Bud Collins reflects on the career and legacy of a true tennis great.

A singular figure in the game’s history as the first black male to win a major singles titles—the first three in fact—Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., also set a record in 1968 that is most unlikely to be equalled: he won both the U.S. Amateur and Open championships, the first time such a double was possible. No one has come remotely close since.

That first season of the Open era was a whirlwind year for him, then 1st Lieutenant Ashe of the U.S. Army. In order to maintain Davis Cup eligibility and gain time away from duty for important tournaments, Ashe was required to maintain his amateur status. Determining that the traditional (and previously amateur) U.S. Singles Championships at Forest Hills would become the inaugural U.S. Open in 1968, the USTA designated Longwood Cricket Club grass in Boston as the site for a U.S. Amateur tournament. Seeded No. 1 in Boston, Ashe came through to the title by surging past teammate Bob Lutz in the exciting final, 4-6, 6-3, 8-10, 6-0, 6-4.

However, with pros introduced to Forest Hills, Ashe was a lightly regarded No. 5 seed. Nevertheless, at 25, he came of age as an internationalist. Unflappable over the New York fortnight, he served-and-volleyed splendidly. In the final, he clocked 26 aces, returned with precision, and held his cool in a five-set championship victory over pro Tom Okker, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

An amateur would never do so well again. As the last remaining pro, Okker got the $14,000 first prize while Ashe was happy to settle for $20 daily expenses for his historic triumph, the first major for a black since Althea Gibson’s Forest Hills triumph a decade before. Ashe’s victory also boosted American morale by ending the U.S. male championship drought that dated back 13 years to Tony Trabert’s 1955 title.

That year Ashe was also a Davis Cup drought-buster, spearheading the U.S. drive to the sterling tub last won five years before. He won 11 straight singles (the most in one campaign for an American) in the drive to retrieve the Cup from Australia in Adelaide. In the finale, he started slowly but beat lefty Ray Ruffels on opening day, 6-8, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, for a 2-0 lead. After the Cup was clinched by Lutz and Stan Smith in doubles, he finally gave way, losing to Bill Bowrey in a meaningless third-day match. The season closed with Ashe the winner of 10 of 22 tournaments on a 72-10 match record.

He would win both his singles in 1969 as the U.S. successfully defended the Cup, 5-0, against Romania. He beat Ilie Nastase on the first day, 6-2, 15-13, 7-5. Next came West Germany, 5-0, also at Cleveland in 1970, and his first-day win over Willy Bungert, 6-2, 10-8, 6-2. His third-day defeat of Christian Kuhnke, 6-8, 10-12, 9-7, 13-11, 6-4, was the longest match (86 games) in a Cup-deciding round. Eight years later, he reappeared for a vital cameo that led to another Cup for the U.S. His singles victory over Kjell Johansson, 6-2, 6-0, 7-5, was the clincher over Sweden, 3-2, in the semi-final at Goteborg.

Ashe put in 10 years of Davis Cup, topped for the U.S. only by John McEnroe’s 12 and Bill Tilden and Stan Smith’s 11 each, and won 27 singles matches. He returned in 1981 as captain for five years, piloting the victors of 1981 and 1982. He was born July 10, 1943 in Richmond, Va., and grew up there. He was 6’1, 160lbs and right-handed. Since racial segregation was the law at that time, he could not play in the usual junior tournaments. With the aid of the concerned Lynchburg, Va., physician, Dr. Walter Johnson (who had also befriended and helped Althea Gibson), Ashe finished high school in St. Louis where he could get the necessary tennis competition.

In 1961, after Dr. Johnson’s lobbying got him into the previously segregated U.S. Interscholastic tourney, Ashe won it for Sumner High. Four years later, leading man of his alma mater’s varsity (University of California at Los Angeles), he won the 1965 U.S. Intercollegiate singles over Mike Belkin of the Univ. of Miami, 6-4, 6-1,6-1, and took the doubles with Ian Crookenden. Although Ashe was a man of strong character, poised and able to overcome racial blocks, it took him a while to harness his power, groove his groundstrokes and become a thoughtful player, comfortable on all surfaces. He won 35 amateur singles tournaments, including the U.S. Hard Court in 1963 over Allen Fox, 6-3, 12-10, and the U.S. Clay Court in 1967 over Marty Riessen, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5. As one whose career overflowed the amateur and Open eras, he followed the 1968 breakthrough with 11 sterling years as a professional that netted 33 singles titles including the 1970 Australian over Aussie Dick Crealy, 6-4, 9-7, 6-2, and the gloriously unexpected Wimbledon title in 1975.

Days before his 32nd birthday, seeded No. 6, he was a longer shot than he had been seven years earlier at Forest Hills. Defending champ Jimmy Connors, seemingly inviolable, was a 10-to-1 favourite in the final, but Ashe was too slick and cerebral in one of the momentous upsets, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. Changing pace and spin cleverly, startling Connors with a sliced serve wide to the two-fisted backhand, Arthur out-foxed the man a decade his junior.

This was the centrepiece of Ashe’s preeminent year, a heavy duty season when he won nine of 29 tournaments on a 108-23 match record and wound up No. 1 in the U.S., No. 4 in the world. He reached No. 2 in the world in 1976. Improving with age, he unfortunately was grounded prematurely, and permanently, by a heart attack in July, 1979. In 1992, he revealed that he’d contracted AIDS through a 1988 blood transfusion.

Besides 1975, he spent nine other years in the world’s Top 10: No. 10 in 1965 and 1978; No. 7 in 1966; No. 9 in 1967, 1970 and  1973; No. 2 in 1968; No. 8 in 1969; No. 6 in 1971; No. 5 in 1972. In the U.S. rankings, he was No. 1 in 1968 and 1975 and in the Top 10 10 other years: No. 6 in 1963; No. 3 in 1964 and 1976; No. 2 in 1965-66-67, 69, 71, 73; No. 4 in 1970; No. 5 in 1974.

He was one of the founders of the ATP in 1972, served as president and had been a reasoned, intelligent spokesman for the game, serving on numerous corporate boards and received several honorary degrees. 

A long-time protester of apartheid in South Africa, he was, after several refusals, granted a visa to visit that country in 1973, and became the first black to win a title there, the doubles (with Okker) in the South African Open, over Lew Hoad and Rob Maud, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, after losing singles final to Connors, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3. “You have shown our black youth that they can compete with whites and win,” poet Don Mattera lauded him. 

He was gratified to return again after the dismantling of apartheid and meet with president Nelson Mandela (who identified himself as “an Ashe fan”). Ashe lent himself, his name and his money to various enlightened causes. He was arrested not long before his death in a protest against what he regarded as cruel U.S. policies toward Haitian refugees. His principal cause was fostering, furthering education for needy kids, and he was the guiding light in the Safe Passage Foundation for that purpose.

He was also a warrior in the fight against AIDS. A tennis player who went well beyond the game, Arthur upheld the qualities that distinguished him as a champion: he showed that it was possible to compete ferociously while maintaining personal honour and sportsmanship. Having entered the Hall of Fame in 1985, he died Feb. 6, 1993, leaving his wife, Jeanne, and six-year-old daughter, Camera. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.

During his career, he won 35 amateur singles, 33 pro singles (634-202 in matches), 18 pro doubles titles (323-176) and $1,584,909 in prize money. 

MAJOR TITLES (5) — U.S. singles, 1968; Australian singles, 1970; Wimbledon singles, 1975; Australian doubles, 1977; French doubles, 1971. 

OTHER U.S. TITLES (8) — Amateur singles, 1968; Clay Court singles, 1967; Hard Court singles, 1963. Intercollegiate singles. 1965; Indoor doubles, 1967 with Charles Pasarell; 1970 with Stan Smith; Clay Court doubles, 1970. with Clark Graebner; Intercollegiate doubles, 1965, with Ian Crookenden

DAVIS CUP (As player) — 1963, 1965-66-67-68-69-70, 75, 77, 78, 27-5 singles, 1-1 doubles. As captain—1981-82-83-84-85, record 13-3, won 1981-82 Cups.

- Bio courtesy Bud Collins. 

THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, published by New Chapter Press, is available for purchase here on Amazon.com.


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