Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, to Mattie Cunningham Ashe and Arthur Robert Ashe Sr., two middle-class African Americans living in strictly segregated Richmond. His mother died before he was seven, but not before teaching him to read at an early age. Small in stature, Ashe took to tennis from the age of four, mostly thanks to his father’s job as caretaker at Brook Field, one of Richmond’s blacks-only playgrounds. The Ashe home was located in the middle of the playground.
Despite his on-court successes, Ashe was little recognized in Richmond. Although he was featured in Sports Illustrated‘s “Faces in the Crowd” (December 12, 1960), there was virtually no opportunity in Richmond for a black tennis player, and after his junior year at Richmond’s all-black Maggie Lena Walker High School, Ashe accepted the invitation of Saint Louis tennis official Richard Hudlin to live with him, play against stronger (mostly white) competition, and complete high school. He graduated first in his class from Sumner High School in 1961 and accepted a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1962 Ashe was the fifth-ranked junior player in the country.
Tennis and Activism
Ashe thrived at UCLA, academically and athletically. Not only did he win, but his tennis reputation grew. Guided by UCLA coach J. D. Morgan and tennis legend Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, Ashe won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) individual tennis title in 1965, and the UCLA team finished first in the nation. During his first three years, UCLA was the NCAA runner-up. As a sophomore, he was again featured in Sports Illustrated as a face in the crowd.
Arthur Ashe’s Career
Ashe rose rapidly through the amateur rankings—by 1963 he was ranked eighteenth in the world and made the U.S. Davis Cup team, the pinnacle of international team tennis. Ashe became a regular on the Davis Cup squad, playing from 1963 to 1970 and again in 1975, 1976, and 1978. He was ranked sixth in 1964 and won the Eastern Grass Court championship that August, beating established stars Dennis Ralston and Clark Graebner. Ranked third in 1965, he defeated Australian Roy Emerson in the U.S. Open quarterfinals before losing to Manuel Santana of Spain in the semifinals.
Ashe graduated from UCLA with a business degree and joined the Army in 1966, serving two years and rising to the rank of second lieutenant, but continued playing championship-level tennis. The first of his three Grand Slam championships, named for the four most prestigious competitions of each year, came on September 9, 1968, when Ashe beat Dutchman Tom Okker to capture the U.S. Open title. He remains the only African American to win the men’s title. Tennis success continued—Ashe won the 1970 Australian Open (also a Grand Slam title)—culminating in 1975 when he beat fellow American Jimmy Connors in four sets to win at Wimbledon, the only African American men’s player to win that prestigious title.
In 1976, Ashe met photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy. The two married in February 1977 at the United Nations Chapel in New York City. U.S. ambassador Andrew Young performed the ceremony. By the time he was married, Ashe had become an outspoken opponent of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation. He had applied for and was denied a visa to play in the 1969 South African Open, leading him to become a vocal and long-term opponent of apartheid. Ashe prodded the International Lawn Tennis Federation to expel South Africa, and in 1973 he was granted a visa to play in the South African Open, winning the doubles title and losing in the singles final.
His activism was also evident at home, as Ashe and fellow tennis players formed the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 to represent them in financial arrangements and control of tennis earnings. Ashe served as president in 1974. The ATP remains a powerful organization in world tennis. He was also active in promoting youth tennis as a founder of the National Junior Tennis League in 1969, an organization devoted to exposing youngsters, male and female, to tennis but with an emphasis on discipline and school. Ashe would lend his support to many such organizations throughout the remainder of his life, most focusing on minorities, tennis, and education.
In July 1979 Ashe suffered a heart attack while teaching tennis to inner-city youth. Later he had quadruple bypass surgery, but chest pains continued and he retired from competition in 1980, leaving with a career record of 818 wins to 260 losses and fifty-one titles. Outside of competition, Ashe wrote a three-volume history of black athletes, performed on-air commentary for ABC Sports, and served as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, which won titles in 1981 and 1982. He served as chairman of the National Heart Association in 1981, was arrested at a protest against apartheid protest in Washington, D.C., in 1985, and was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1988, he was diagnosed with HIV but initially kept his medical condition private.
On April 8, 1992, Ashe announced that he had HIV/AIDS in order to preempt USA Today‘s plans to publish the story. Although he began work on a memoir about his struggle with the disease, Days of Grace (1993), it would be published posthumously. Ashe died on February 6, 1993. His body lay in honor in the capitol building in Richmond, the first person so honored since 1863, when Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson died. About six thousand people attended his funeral. He was later buried at Woodland Cemetery in Richmond.
Still, the legacy of Arthur Ashe was not complete. Richmond’s historic tree-lined Monument Avenue was home to five monuments, all to prominent Confederates including Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Jackson. In 1995, the city voted to erect a sixth—to Ashe. In what became the “Battle of Monument Avenue,” locating the monument there became a divisive issue taking months of debate before its unveiling on July 10, 1996, or what would have been Ashe’s fifty-third birthday. The twelve-foot statue on a forty-four-ton stone column depicts Ashe facing west, surrounded by children, holding a tennis racket in one hand and carrying books in the other. The statue is a fitting tribute to the man who could not play tennis on most playgrounds in his own hometown, but who loved children and stressed learning as a means of self-improvement—a reminder of Ashe’s struggle and success against racism and discrimination. As a final tribute, the center stadium court at New York’s National Tennis Center, home to the U.S. Open, was named Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997.
On February 11, 2019, the Richmond City Council voted 8-0-1 to change the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard, endorsing the plan put forth by 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray. Arthur Ashe Boulevard was formally dedicated on June 22, 2019.