Arthur Ashe's Historic 1968 US Open Win
Fifty years ago, on 9 September 1968, Sergeant Johnnie Ashe was the duty non-commissioned officer at Camp Lejeune, a United States Marine Corps base in North Carolina. That is about 600 miles away from Forest Hills, New York, where the final of the first US Open was held. There were about a dozen seated soldiers in a common room right off the duty desk when Sgt. Ashe walked in.
“Look, I’d like to find tennis on TV,” he said. “We found it, and they started talking and one of the guys looked at me and said, ‘Sgt. Ashe, are you any kin to that guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m his brother.’ So he said, ‘Well, we’ve got to watch this.’ So we sat and watched the match.”
Ashe says that "most of them didn’t know anything about tennis". But little did they know that by the end of the match, they would all be jumping up and down. They were watching Arthur Ashe defeat Dutchman Tom Okker 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to become the first African-American man to win the US Open.
“It was close,” said the top seed in the women’s singles draw that year, Billie Jean King, for whom the current home of the US Open is named. “Okker was really quick, a quick little Dutch guy. He was hard to play. He was really quick and he was real twitchy. He was all over the place. He had a great forehand when he had confidence. I was like, ‘Oh my God’. Arthur had such a beautiful serve. That really made the difference, too.”
That was Ashe’s first moment of glory. Then 25, it was his first Grand Slam title. But earlier in the tournament it appeared he was destined for a quarter-final exit. Ashe was drawn to meet Aussie legend Rod Laver in the last eight. Laver would eventually win 13 of 15 FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings against Ashe.
But ‘Rocket Rod’, the top seed, never made it that far. That’s because Cliff Drysdale, an International Tennis Hall of Fame member, beat him in the Round of 16.
"Thank God, because Arthur was never going to beat Laver. That wasn’t going to happen," said Fred McNair IV, a 16-time tour-level doubles titlist who would later become a close friend of Ashe's.
“I also knew that beating Laver potentially opened the door for Arthur to go further because Laver had a stellar record against Arthur," Drysdale said. "Arthur could not handle the Rocket’s serve. I was, in my humble opinion, partly responsible for Arthur being able to win the US Open.”
While that was the pair’s first official FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting, Drysdale didn’t expect to roll past Ashe after his upset of Laver.
“I do have vague recollections of Arthur’s ability to kind of take the match to me. He was a flat-ball hitter. The grass courts were really very poor grass courts compared to what they have these days, especially what they play on at Wimbledon. And I found it very difficult to play him, because he didn’t give me much chance to play my own game because he would attack my serve and he was very much a go-for-broke type of player,” Drysdale said. “He was sort of a transitional player in my view, because he played the kind of game they play today, except we came into the net a lot more, especially on the bad grass courts. There was a lot more serve and volley, so he was a combination of serve and volleyer and a really hard hitter of the ball, a flat-ball hitter.”
Ashe’s Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner, who just weeks earlier clinched the United States’ tie against Spain, was next. Ashe dismissed him in four sets, putting him one match from history. He would take a two-sets-to-one lead in the championship against Okker, when something happened that you don’t see today.
The locker rooms and showers were right underneath the stadium at the West Side Tennis Club, and players were allowed to go refresh themselves, especially because of the grass surface.
Donald Dell, who was Ashe’s Davis Cup captain at the time, Ashe’s best friend and roommate from UCLA, Charlie Passarell, and his coach, Dr. Walter Johnson, visited Ashe there after the third set.
“He [Dr. Johnson] was in a little area, and started talking to Arthur while Arthur was literally toweling off from the shower. And I could tell that Arthur was really uncomfortable and so I grabbed Dr. Johnson and I said, ‘Doctor, Charlie and I want to chat with you about strategy for the fourth set.’ And we started to turn away and go to another part of the room there to let Arthur towel off, change, get dressed,” Dell said. “Arthur said to me after the match privately, ‘I was so happy you talked to Dr. Johnson. I was trying to relax. I didn’t want to talk about it.’ He loved Dr. Johnson, but he didn’t want to talk about strategy when he had Charlie and I there. We knew what to tell him, and he didn’t want to get in the middle of something with someone whom he really admired and liked.”
So, what did Dell and Passarell tell Ashe to do? Well, it was simple.
“We talked about how to attack Okker, how he had to get to the net more, how he had to get more first serves in,” Dell said. “Okker was taking the match away from him. Arthur was a better player on grass, and Tom was a better player on clay. But he was smart. Okker was a very smart player and he maximised his talent… He had tremendously quick volleys. He guarded the net, he was a very good volleyer. I wanted Arthur to come in and take over the net, and to not let Okker dominate the net.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
"No matter what the score was going to be, Okker was just never going to beat him. It was kind of like these rivalries with Roger Federer and David Ferrer (Federer leads 17-0)," McNair IV said. "You just know they’re going to put up a fight, but mentally they just know that they’re going to succumb. They may be good for a set and a half, but they just don’t have quite enough. And Arthur’s weaponry matched up too well. It just matched up too well on the grass. If it was on clay, it might have been a different story. Arthur was just the guy who wasn’t going to be beat."
This year, the US Open champion will take home $3.8 million. In 1968, Ashe left town with $280 — a $20 per diem. Ashe was still in the Army, based at West Point. But around Christmas that year, Dell got a call from the United States Tennis Association saying that an anonymous donor wished to give Ashe $15,000 of stock.
“I have no idea who did it. I suspect it was somebody in the USTA group, but that’s all I know,” Dell said. “He did accept the stock, and nobody talked about it much… it was a very nice thoughtful gift from someone and they insisted it be anonymous. I never discovered who it was.”
At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the money for Ashe. Nobody will remember the pay he took home after winning the first ‘open’ US Open.
“It meant so much for so many reasons,” King said. “He was a kid who came from Richmond, it was segregated and all that. He told me it was one of the proudest moments of his life.”
So the first word Ashe said to his brother Johnnie when he called him at Camp Lejeune after the match was quite apropos of the moment.