We remember Ashe for his electrifying talent. But he had a social conscience that was way ahead of its time
Fifty years ago this week, Arthur Ashe shocked the tennis world by winning the mens singles at the first US Open.
No one had expected a fifth-seeded, 25-year-old amateur on temporary leave from the army to come out on top in a field that included the worlds best pro players. The era of Open tennis, in which both amateurs and professionals competed, was only four months old. Many feared that mixing the two groups was a mistake. Yet Ashe, with help from a string of upsets that eliminated the top four seeds, defeated the Dutchman Tom Okker in the championship match in the process becoming the first black man to reach the highest echelon of amateur tennis.
As an amateur, Ashe could not accept the champions prize money of $14,000. But the lost income proved inconsequential in light of the other benefits that came in the wake of his historic performance.He became not only as a bona fide sports star but also a citizen activist with important things to contribute to society and a platform to do so. Ashe began to speak out on questions of social and economic justice.
Earlier in the year, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had shocked Ashe out of his youthful reticence to become involved in the struggle for civil rights. Over the next 25 years, he worked tirelessly as an advocate for civil and human rights, a role model for athletes interested in more than fame and fortune.
From what we get, we can make a living, he counseled. What we give, however, makes a life.
Ashes 1968 win was truly impressive but his finest moment at the Open came, arguably, in 1992, four and a half months after the public disclosure that he had Aids and nearly a decade after he contracted HIV during a blood transfusion. If we apply Ashes professed standard of success, which placed social and political reform well above athletic achievement, the 25th US Open, not the first, is the tournament most deserving of commemoration. Without picking up a racket, he managed to demonstrate a moral leadership that far transcended the world of sports.
On 30 August, on the eve of the first round, a substantial portion of the professional tennis community rallied behind the stricken champions effort to raise funds for the new Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids (AAFDA). The celebrity-studded event, the Arthur Ashe Aids Tennis Challenge, drew a huge crowd and nine of the games biggest stars. The support was unprecedented, leading one reporter to marvel: The tennis world is known by and large as a selfish, privileged world, one crammed with factions and egos. So what is happening at the Open is unthinkable: gender and nationality and politics will take a back seat to a full-fledged effort to support Ashe.
Participants included CBS correspondent Mike Wallace, then New York City mayor David Dinkins and two of tenniss biggest celebrities, the up-and-coming star Andre Agassi and the four-time Open champion John McEnroe, who entertained the crowd by clowning their way through a long set. To Ashes delight, McEnroe, once known as the Superbrat of tennis, even put on a joke tantrum against the umpire.
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