Arthur Robert Ashe Jr.: The Hand That Smashed Color Barrier In World Tennis, Fought Apartheid and Won Grand Slams

On July 10, 1943 Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born to parents Arthur Sr. and Mattie C. Ashe in Richmond, Virginia. His interest in and learning of tennis from an early age happened partly because his father got a job at Brook Field in 1947. They lived in a house located on blacks-only 18-acre park with multiple lawn tennis courts at Brook Field. While he was playing tennis, he was an avid reader and straight A student.

In 1950, about Arthur’s 7th birthday, his mother died of complications from surgery leaving him motherless in his growimg years. In the same 1950, Arthur met national black tennis player and part-tennis coach, Ronald Charity, who took an interest in Arthur game. He started teaching Arthur strokes and proper form. By 1953 it was visible that Arthur was a natural but still needed a proper coach. Eventually, Charity introduced him to Dr. Walter Johnson, who would become his lifelong coach [and mentor] and at the time also the coach of the only African-American competing in world tennis, Althea Gibson.

Teen Years
In 1958 Arthur became the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships, his first integrated tennis competition. During the summer Arthur participated in competitive tournaments around the country though he could only play fellow blacks from Richmond on outdoor tennis courts. To continue his tennis, he travelled away to begin his senior year in high school to St. Louis, Missouri, stayed with a friend of Johnson, Richard Hudlin and competed against strong tennis opponents. At this time he was also making a name for himself, winning multiple junior tennis tournaments nationally. He was featured in the December 12, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated as a Face in the Crowd. The University of California, Los Angeles had offered him a full scholarship for college by then.

College Years
Arthur attended UCLA with one of the best college tennis programs, paying tougher opppnents and receiving more recognition in college tennis. That year his name appeared on the U.S. Davis Cup team list as its first African-American player. He also played in 1970,1975, 1976 and 1978. As a sophomore at UCLA, he featured again in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd as a rising athlete of some note. His good grades while pursuing tennis never dipped. In 1966, Arthur graduated with a degree in business administration. In addition to finishing his studies, Arthur, a year before, won the individual NCAA championship and immensely contributed to UCLA winning NCAA tennis team championship.

Military Service
Arthur served in the U.S. Army from 1966-68, reaching the rank of First-Lieutenant at West Point in New York. In the army, he continued to play tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other tournaments. Still an amateur, Arthur won Tom Okker of the Netherlands on September 9, 1968 to win the first U.S. Open. But due to his amateur status, he could not accept the prize money, which was given to Okker instead, making him the only African-American man to ever win the title.

Upon returning to West Point, Arthur was given an enthusiastic standing ovation. In 1969, Arthur co-founded the National Junior Tennis League with Charlie Pasarell, a tennis player a future tournament director and commentator, and Sheridan Snyder, a tennis enthusiast. The program exposed under-privileged children to tennis while fostering a sense of discipline and attention to academics.

Professional Years
In 1969, Arthur first applied for a visa to travel to South Africa and compete in the South African Open. The Apartheid government of the day denied him a South African visa despite being ranked #1 in the U.S.A. He continued to apply for the visa countless times. Subsequently, he led a campaign for the ejection of the nation from the International Lawn Tennis Federation. This was the beginning of his activism against Apartheid for the next two decades.

Arthur won the 1970 edition of the Australian open, the second of his three career grand Slam singles titles. By the early 70s he had become one of the most famous tennis players. The income from the growing interest and winnings did not satisfy the players and in response to this, he co-founded the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 with Jack Kramer and others. The ATP was formed to represent the interests of male tennis pros. Now, players can determine their earnings and/or tournament game time. He was later elected as the President of ATP in 1974.

South Africa eventually granted Arthur a visa in 1973 making him the first black pro to play in the national championships and won the doubles title with Tom Okker. 1975 would prove a stellar year for Arthur when he defeated the heavily favored Jimmy Connors in four sets to win the Wimbledon singles title. He was the first and only black man to win the most prestigious grass-court tournament. That same year, he also attained the #1 men’s ranking in the world.

In 1980, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr., decided to retire from tennis with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles. That same year, in fact, he was appointed captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Under his leadership, players like John McEnroe, Peter Fleming and Jimmy Connors won the Davis Cup in 1981 and 1982.

In 1997 the USTA announced that the new center stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center would be named Arthur Ashe Stadium, commemorating the life of the first U.S. Open men’s champion in the place where all future U.S. Open champions will be determined.

Career Highlights
1953 – Won the ATA National Championship for boys 12 years and under.
Graduated 1st in his class from high school.
Earned a full scholarship to attend college at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
1968 – Won U.S Open.
1970 – Won Australian Open.
1975 – Won Wimbledon Singles.
1974 – Elected as President of ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals).
1981 – Selected as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team.
1985 – Inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.
1992 – Named Sport Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
1993 – He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The main stadium at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Park, is named Arthur Ashe Stadium in his honor. This is where the U.S. Open is played during which the annual Arthur Ashe Kids Day is held.
2005 – The US Postal Service released an Arthur Ashe commemorative postal stamp, the first stamp ever to feature the cover of a Sports Illustrated magazine.
2005 – TENNIS Magazine ranked him 30th place on its list of 40 Greatest Players of the TENNIS era.
2007 – Arthur Ashe polled #14 in USA Today’s list of 25 Most Inspiring People of the Last 25 Years
2009, – He was inducted into the US Open Court of Champions by President Bill Clinton
Numerous honorary degrees were bestowed on him during his life and posthumously including ones from: Amherst College, Barnard College, The College of William and Mary, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Hartford College, Haverford College, Kalamazoo College, Le Moyne College, Le Moyne-Owen College, New York University, Northeastern University, Princeton University, Saint John’s University, Trinity University, University of Delaware, Virginia Union University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Wake Forest University, Yale University