‘Not everyone can be an Arthur Ashe’: How a tennis legend created the model for athlete activism




Arthur Ashe leaps like a ballet across the grass field, his gold chain peeking out from behind his white polo shirt. He serves unreturned aces, then returns low forehand volleys as his opponent, Jimmy Connors, looks down in frustration.

The opening scenes of CNN’s new film ‘Citizen Ashe’ show moments from Ashe’s Wimbledon victory over Connors in July 1975, when he became the first and only black man to win the prestigious Grand Slam of tennis.

But the historic match symbolized the tension Ashe has faced throughout his career; the weight of expectations from the world of tennis, the racism he faced as a black athlete and his humanitarian work.

“I think I can almost handle just about anything. As an African-American athlete, I experienced racism as a tennis player a long time ago,” Ashe said in an interview in the documentary. “I’ve played some amazing matches in amazing circumstances, but Wimbledon has tied my whole life together.”

In July 1996, MaliVai ‘Mal’ Washington became the second black man to reach a Wimbledon final – a record the 53-year-old has held for nearly 26 years.

“To think that he (Ashe) could play on the tennis court like he did and then choose to be an activist like he was in a way that a lot of black players wouldn’t have been. comfortable doing given the weather…he was just very different,” Washington told CNN Sport.

Mal Washington in action during Wimbledon at the All England Club in London.

When he turned pro at 20, Washington was one of the few black players on tour and was touted as the next Arthur Ashe.

“It was wonderful to be compared to him, but given that I turned professional in 1989 and, you know, he was winning Grand Slams in the 1960s and 1970s, it just shows you the glaring and obvious fact that there just weren’t many black players since he won his last major,” he says.

Like Washington, Ashe started playing tennis at an early age.

Born in July 1943 in Richmond, Virginia, he was introduced to the sport when his father, Arthur Sr., became a caretaker at Brook Field Park in 1947, a separate playground equipped with tennis courts, a baseball, swimming pool, outdoor pool area and basketball courts.

As his tennis skills improved, Ashe needed to step up in the quality of the opponents he faced. However, his opportunities were curtailed by segregation. For example, he was often shunned by the nearby Byrd Park youth tournament because the public tennis courts were “whites only”.

At the age of 10, Ashe had a chance encounter with doctor and tennis coach Dr. Walter Johnson that would change her life. Johnson, who mentored 11-time Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson, coached Ashe and helped him win several junior tennis competitions.

Ashe spent her senior year in high school in St. Louis, Missouri, before being offered a full scholarship to attend UCLA. In 1963, he became the first black American to play for the USA Davis Cup team.

President Nixon welcomes the United States Davis Cup team to the White House.  From left to right: Arthur Ashe;  Clark Graebner;  Dennis Ralston, coach;  President Nixon;  Donald doll;  Bob Luts and Stan Smith.

As Ashe gained status in the tennis world, his reluctance to speak out on social issues affecting black communities in the United States caused friction between him and members of the civil rights movement.

In 1967, Harry Edwards, a civil rights activist and professor of sociology at San Jose State University, founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). He leveraged the group to organize a boycott of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, in protest against the racism faced by black athletes in the United States. While athletes including NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have advocated for the move, Ashe has not.

“All around me, I saw these athletes coming out in front to try to claim civil rights. But I was still with mixed emotions,” Ashe said in an interview in the film. times when I felt like maybe I was a coward for not doing certain things, not joining this protest or whatever.”

Early in his career, Ashe made the distinction between remaining politically neutral to appease his white colleagues and publicly condemning the racism faced by black athletes.

“I feel some confusion about what an athlete should be, especially in an African American context. There are still myths about black athletes around the world because we tend to be disproportionately successful in athletics” Ashe adds, “Some people think we’re all brawny and brainless. And I like to fight the myth.

Speaking of the Ashe sighting, Washington says, “That myth continued, the racism continued, the discrimination continued.

“I can absolutely see how Arthur would have that feeling. And the ironic thing is that he was the most intellectual person on tour at the time.

In 1968, after Ashe graduated from UCLA and served in the United States Army, the American political landscape was turned upside down.

Two leading figures in the African-American equality movement – civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and politician Robert F. Kennedy – were assassinated two months apart.

Speaking of King’s murder, Ashe said, “I was very angry. I also felt a little helpless. Things would be different now because, I mean, he was sort of seen as our knight in shining armor.

“Being a black American, I felt a sense of urgency that I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Arthur Ashe plays during the Wimbledon Men's Singles competition.

The world of tennis also saw a tectonic shift at the dawn of the Open era, when professionals were allowed to compete with amateurs. Ashe won his first Grand Slam title at the 1968 US Open when he defeated Dutch player Tom Okker, becoming the first and only black man to win the tournament.

Earlier that year, Ashe gave his first political speech at a church in Washington, D.C., where he spoke about his experiences as a black athlete in society and voting — despite being penalized by the army. He also joined athletes, such as baseball legend Jackie Robinson, in a statement demanding that the United States Olympic Committee approve a continued ban on South Africa’s participation in the Olympics.

Ashe’s speech marked a turning point in her tennis career. Instead of his platform preventing him from taking a stand on political issues, he began to use it as a vehicle for social change.

In 1969, he co-founded the National Junior Tennis League to help children in disadvantaged communities improve their academic and life skills through tennis. That year, he also applied for a visa to participate in the South African Open but was rejected due to the country’s apartheid regime.

He was, however, admitted to competition in 1973 and became the first black professional tennis player at the South African national championships. Ashe told the South African government that he would not play in front of a separate crowd and that he would not give in to limitations on his freedom of expression in the country.

“A lot of people were against him going, but he went anyway, which just shows you, you know, the power to do what’s right. The power to say, to follow your conscience and to do what it takes,” says Washington.

Ashe worked with fellow activist Andrew Young to take action against apartheid, raising money to help black South African students attend college in the United States and vowing not to return to the country after the uprising of Soweto in 1976.

He married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe in 1977, and in December 1986 his daughter Camera was born.

USA captain Ashe and player John McEnroe at the 1984 Davis Cup in Atlanta, Georgia.

After retiring from competitive tennis in 1980 and five years as captain of the United States Davis Cup team, Ashe forged a blueprint for athlete activism.

He had the ability to facilitate nuanced discussions between opposing sides of the political spectrum, a skill that Washington said was “a very special gift.”

“His behavior kind of reminds me of Nelson Mandela,” adds Washington. “That’s why that’s one of the reasons he was able to kind of do the things that he was able to do, accomplish the things that he was able to accomplish.

“It’s very powerful when you have a very calm, confident resolve.”

“Arthur would walk in and he would make statements that when you rule out kindness, kindness, smartness, calmness, his statement would be more militant than mine,” said Edwards, a civil rights activist and professor of sociology. an interview in the documentary.

“To date, we have not found anyone else able to speak to both sides of the barricades, and this bridge has become critically and crucially important,” adds Edwards.

Arthur Ashe referees the Taylor-Emerson match at the Queen's Club.

Towards the end of her life, Ashe stood up for marginalized communities, inspiring a generation of activist athletes – including Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, LeBron James and Naomi Osaka – to follow in her footsteps.

In 1988, Ashe learned he was HIV-positive while undergoing testing due to his toxoplasmosis. Four years later, he publicly acknowledged his AIDS diagnosis and addressed the United Nations General Assembly on World AIDS Day.

He worked towards the end of apartheid with Nelson Mandela and protested the US policy of returning Haitian refugees to their homeland, for which he was arrested.

Before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia in February 1993, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.

“What I don’t want is to be seen, at the end of the day, as…or to be remembered as a great tennis player. I mean, it’s not a contribution to make to society,” Ashe says in an interview in the documentary.

Washington says Ashe “created the kind of roadmap” for modern athlete activism.

“Not everyone can be an Arthur Ashe. Not everyone can be a Nelson Mandela…they are giants in the world of activism,” Washington says. “I don’t think there has ever been a tennis player as active and as vocal as he has been.”

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