This day in sports history: April 16, 1980
On this day in sports history, tennis legend Arthur Ashe retired.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Ashe started playing tennis at a young age. In 1950, at the age of seven, he met Ronald Charity who was one of the best African-American tennis players in the nation at the time. Charity recognized the raw talent in Ashe, and began to work with him, teaching him the basics of the game. In 1953, Charity introduced Ashe to Dr. Walter Johnson who would play a pivotal role in his career.
Dr. Johnson was a physician from Lynchburg, Virginia who coached and trained African-American tennis players – Ashe being the most notable, along with Althea Gibson, the first African-American Wimbledon champion.
Ashe’s development started to come along under Johnson, and in 1958, he became the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships.
The young tennis star, was also very bright, graduating first in his class. After high school, he attended UCLA, one of the top tennis schools in the country, on a full scholarship.
Ashe lead UCLA to the 1965 team championship, and won the individual title that year.
After graduating from UCLA with a degree in business administration, Ashe served in the U.S. Army, while continuing to compete.
On September 9th, 1968, Ashe defeated Tom Okker from the Netherlands in the first U.S. Open, but because Ashe was an amateur, he could not accept the prize money and so, the winnings went to Okker. To this day, Arthur Ashe is still the only African-American male to win the U.S. Open.
In 1969 he applied for a visa to compete in the South African Open, but was denied due to South Africa’s apartheid. This was the beginning of his human rights activism. He continued to apply for a visa, and was finally granted one in 1973, thus leading to him becoming the first African-American professional player to compete in the Open.
Ashe continued to break barriers. Two years later, he reached the achievement of being ranked number one in the world, the same year he won Wimbledon, the first time by an African-American male.
After suffering a heart attack, Ashe retired from tennis in 1980 with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles, but his legacy goes far beyond his athletic accomplishments.
After his retirement, he continued his human rights activism against South African apartheid, was involved with developing urban youth tennis programs, and helped found the Association of Men’s Tennis Professionals.
Ashe experienced more health problems, and was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. His diagnosis spearheaded his founding of the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the defeat of AIDS.
Ashe died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia. He was given the honor of lying in state at the Governor’s Mansion in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The last person to have received such honor was Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in 1863.
There is a statute of Ashe on Monument Avenue in Richmond, which shows him carry books in one hand and a racket in the other, showcasing his love of both knowledge and tennis. The significance of the statute being placed on Monument Avenue is that when Ashe was a young boy living in Richmond, he would not have been able to visit the statue because of the color of his skin.
Today the sports world honors Ashe with Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City, where the U.S. Open is played every year, and with the Arthur Ashe Award, which is considered the most prestigious award in sports, given to a recipient who, by definition, “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
Arthur Ashe was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, the first African-American to be inducted.
“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
References: UCLA, International Tennis Hall of Fame, ESPN