"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost". - Arthur Ashe

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr was not just an extraordinary tennis player, but also an exemplary human being. Here is a summary of the life of this remarkable sportsman.

Younger Years

Arthur Ashe was born in an African American family on July 10, 1943. His mother, Mattie died at the age of 27 years due to pre-eclampsia. Ashe was only 6-year-old at that time. His father raised him and his brother on his own. His father was both strict and kind and instilled the need for discipline in young Arthur.

Ashe started playing at the age of seven years. Ronald Charity, who himself was a brilliant black tennis player, noticed Ashe’s talent and started coaching him in 1950. In 1953, Dr. Walter Johnson, who had coached black tennis player Althea Gibson in world tennis, took over as Ashe’s coach. He remained a mentor to Ashe throughout his life. Dr. Johnson taught him not only about the sport but also about sportsmanship. He taught Ashe to forever behave like a gentleman, to accept mistakes, and to take losing in his stride.

Arthur encountered racism right from his early years. The opportunity to compete in integrated competitions only presented itself during summer break. At other times, when school was ongoing, he could only play against black players in his hometown of Richmond. This limited his ability to improve his skills by competing against all sorts of competitors.

It is only in 1958 that he competed in his first integrated tennis competition. Coach Johnson noticed this hurdle to Ashe’s development. In his senior year of high school, he was transferred to Missouri where he had better opportunities. Subsequently, he was offered a full tennis scholarship by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and he attended college there. He performed well in UCLA and graduated with a business degree.

Professional Success

After college, he joined the U.S. Army and served from 1966-68. During this time, he continued to play the Davis Cup and other tournaments. The Open era of tennis had recently begun. Professionals and amateurs competed in the same competition. Despite being an amateur, Ashe defeated Tom Okker in the finals of the U.S. Open in 1968. Amateurs, however, could not receive the prize money. Though the money went to Okker, Ashe received well-earned attention.

He won three single Grand Slam titles and was the only Black man to win Wimbledon. He achieved a peak ranking of No 2 in 1976. He continues to be the only Black man who won the Wimbledon, the US Open, or the Australian Open titles. Under his leadership, the United States Davis Cup team was a winner for three consecutive years (1968-70).

In 1975, in a legendary match, he defeated Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon Men’s singles finals to become the only black winner of this title. Connors was a brilliant player and favoured to win. Ashe used a completely different game plan which was unlike his usual playing style. It was a remarkable feat that in the most important match of his career, Ashe bravely went ahead and played in a manner so different from his usual style; because that is what the situation demanded.

He was very focused during the match. During the changeovers, he closed his eyes and quietly went over the play strategy in his mind. He was so serene and quiet that he appeared to be meditating. And after winning this match, they were no boisterous display of emotions by Ashe. He merely raised his fist towards his agent, as a quiet marker of celebration. He was one of the tennis players who founded the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 and he was its president in 1974. He also had a love for teaching and encouraged self-improvement in youngsters.

Health Issues

He was in a tennis clinic in New York in 1979 when he suffered a heart attack. His arteries were severely clogged despite his level of physical fitness. This was a completely unexpected finding but necessitated a quadruple bypass surgery.

Initially, Ashe still hoped to recover, train and return to professional tennis. This was not to be because, during a running session on a family holiday, he again developed chest pain. After this his ill-health forced him to retire from tennis in 1980, aged 36 years. Eventually, he required further cardiac surgery in 1983, such was the severity of his illness. Most people in his situation would be devastated at this misfortune. Ashe, instead, became a champion campaigner for the American Heart Association. He turned his misfortune into an opportunity to make a difference in others’ lives.

In 1988 he received another devastating news regarding his health. It began with just a numbness of his right hand. Investigations revealed that he suffered from toxoplasmosis, which is common in immunosuppressed patients. Testing revealed that he was infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It was probably acquired via a blood transfusion received for his bypass surgery. He did not reveal this illness to the public and continued a private struggle with it, while publicly continuing with his humanitarian efforts.

In 1992, he was forced to make his illness public when he got information that the newspaper USA Today was about to carry news of his illness. The deluge of publicity after this would have disconcerted anyone. Ashe, instead, used it to increase awareness about the disease. Though he did not enjoy this publicity surrounding his private medical information, he decided he could use this as an opportunity to ‘spread the word’, as per his memoir, ‘Days of Grace’. As part of this, he started the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS (AAFDA) and also addressed the U.N. General Assembly on World AIDS day.

Humanitarian Work

In 1969, although Ashe was ranked no 1 in the U.S., he was repeatedly denied a visa to travel to participate in the South African Open. This was because of the policy of Apartheid being followed by that nation. Having achieved certain public visibility, he decided to use it to fight against this racial injustice. His efforts helped to exclude South Africa from the Davis Cup Competition in 1970. When Nelson Mandela, the great South African leader, was released from prison, Arthur Ashe was one of the few people Mandela wanted to meet first.

He decided to disseminate his knowledge to students and started preparing to teach a course on ‘The Black Athlete in Contemporary Society’ at the Florida Memorial College. While researching materials to teach this course he noticed that resources were scattered and textbooks outdated. He began work on a 3-volume book, ‘A Hard Road to Glory’ to cover this subject in detail. The book was published in 1988.

What Arthur Ashe taught us about sports and about life

Arthur’s life was a lesson in grit. The life of a professional sportsperson is full of struggles under the best of conditions. If one adds to this the multitude of the daily, small and big obstacles, posed by racism; success becomes that much more difficult.

It appears as if life never stopped giving him newer and more difficult challenges. His unusually severe heart disease and his unfortunately acquired HIV infection kept adding to his problems. And he kept facing them with dignity and grace. He was said to be have a calming presence both on and off the field. However, when he was playing, he was known to highly competitive. This ability to modulate his actions according to the need of the moment indicates a very mature intellect.

People were surprised at the equanimity with which he faced all his ordeals. He was often asked how he dealt with it all.

“If I were to say - ‘God why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.”

In a sport that is marked by fierce rivalry and self-centredness, Arthur Ashe commanded widespread respect. The AAFDA fundraising received unprecedented support from all tennis stars. He died at the age of 49 years, on February 6, 1993. As a fitting tribute to this great man, the biggest court in the world is named after him- the Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York City. His quote is displayed in the Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden in Flushing Meadows, USA.

‘From what we get, we make a living; what we give, however, makes a life’. 

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