Arthur Ashe

(1943—1993) American tennis player

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An African-American born in Richmond, Virginia, USA, who showed precocious tennis talent from the age of 8. He attended UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) on a tennis scholarship (where he graduated in business administration) and at the age of 20 was the first black player to represent the USA in the Davis Cup. In 1968 he won the US Open, and in the same year delivered a speech in Washington DC against racism, and spoke out in protest against South Africa's apartheid system. A late flowering of his competitive career won him the Wimbledon title in London, England, in 1975 and in the early 1980s he took on the leadership and coaching of the US Davis Cup team.

Retiring from the professional game, Ashe undertook a variety of reformist and philanthropic initiatives, even as, in 1988, he had to have brain surgery in an operation in which a blood transfusion resulted in him getting the AIDS virus. He hid the fact of this condition from the public for several years, founding a programme for deprived black youngsters, and visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa (1991). When the newspaper USA Today threatened to run with the revelation that Ashe, vulnerable in part through a heart problem, had AIDS, he announced, in April 1992, the nature of his condition, and founded the Arthur Ashe Aids Foundation before dying of the illness just ten months later.

Ashe also acted as a tennis broadcaster, occasional newspaper columnist, and university teacher. One offer was forthcoming from Yale University, but Ashe chose to offer a course at what he himself called ‘Yale's polar opposite: Florida Memorial College (FMC), a historically black school of some twelve hundred students’. His experience there prompted him to instigate the production of the three-volume A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete (1988), on which he spent $300,000 of his personal money; and to campaign to raise standards of education for US university athletes. His activism and his use of his sport ‘as a way to gain and hold the attention of young people in the inner cities and other poor environments so that we could then teach them about matters more important than tennis’ (Days of Grace: A Memoir, by Ashe and Arnold Rampersad, 1993) marked Ashe out as a thinking and reflective sport star of the modern period, for whom sport was a form of cultural politics and personal growth, success in which both embodied opportunity and generated social responsibility.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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