This day in black sports history marks the 18th anniversary of the death of a tennis legend, a somber day that should also serve as an occasion to celebrate the life of a man who was a fierce competitor on the tennis court and an instrument for change off it.
Born and raised in Richmond, Va, Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr.’s early love of tennis forced him to travel great distances to play white youths in the segregated state capital.
Becoming increasingly frustrated with the experience, Ashe accepted an offer to move to St. Louis and attend Charles E. Sumner High School, the first high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River.
Recognized for his outstanding play, Ashe was awarded a tennis scholarship to UCLA in 1963. During the same year, Ashe became the first African-American to be selected to the United States Davis Cup team.
In 1965, Ashe won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) singles title and contributed to UCLA winning the NCAA’s team tennis championship.
Ashe would go on to win the United States Amateur Championships, the inaugural U.S. Open (professionals weren’t allowed to participate in the tournament at that time) and help the U.S. Davis Cup team to victory in 1968. Ashe is the only player to win both the amateur and open national championships in the same year.
Will an African-American male ever win another Grand Slam singles event in tennis?
An eventful year for Ashe would continue with his support of the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals to ensure that players received winnings commensurate with the sport’s growing popularity across the globe.
In 1970, Ashe was conspicuous by his absence from the South African Open, but not through any fault of his own. Ashe’s visa application was denied by the South African government, compelling him to publicize the country’s apartheid policies and call for South Africa’s expulsion from the International Lawn Tennis Federation.
Three years later, Ashe was granted a visa and became the first black player to participate in South Africa's national championships.
Ashe’s 12-year professional career would include victories at the Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975), making him the only African-American man to ever win Grand Slam singles titles at the U.S. Open, the All England Club, and in Melbourne.
Following a surprising heart attack in July 1979, and undergoing quadruple bypass surgery five months later, Ashe retired from active tennis competition in 1980 with a professional record of 818-260. Ashe was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.
However, Ashe would remain in the public eye for several years to come, becoming even more of an active supporter for civil rights and social justice, and placing him on the wrong side of the law on more than one occasion.
Ashe’s first arrest came on January 11, 1985, for protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. during an anti-apartheid rally. His second arrest came five months before his death, on September 9, 1992, for protesting outside the White House against the American treatment of Haitian refugees.
"I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without human purpose," Ashe once said, "without trying to help the poor and unfortunate, without recognizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others."
In crusading against South African apartheid and the treatment of Haitian refugees, pushing for higher academic standards for athletes, particularly minorities, raising millions of dollars for inner-city tennis centers and the United Negro College Fund, and starting the African-American Athletic Association, Ashe more than lived up to this personal credo.
After feeling numbness in his hand in August 1988, Ashe was hospitalized and learned he had contracted the AIDS virus. His exposure was traced to a blood transfusion he received in 1983 during his second bypass surgery in four years.
"After he contracted the AIDS virus, he was asked, 'Is this the hardest thing you've ever had to deal with?' and he said, 'No, the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with is being a black man in this society,'" said author Ralph Wiley about Arthur Ashe on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
This is the class, courage and dignity that defined the life of Arthur Ashe, which was beautifully chronicled in his memoir Days of Grace.
Ashe would die of AIDS-related pneumonia on February 6, 1993, at the age of 49.
"He was an ambassador of what was right," Bryant Gumbel said in an HBO special on Ashe. "He was an ambassador of dignity. He was an ambassador of class."