Arthur Ashe, born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia, was a trailblazing African American tennis player who made history both on and off the court. He became the first African American male to win the men’s singles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first to achieve the world No. 1 ranking. Ashe remained dedicated to activism throughout his life, using his platform to raise awareness about important issues.
Ashe’s early years were marked by hardship and opportunity. His mother, Mattie Cunningham, passed away when he was just six years old, leaving his father, Arthur Ashe Sr., to raise him and his younger brother, Johnnie. Ashe’s father, determined to instill discipline and keep his sons on the right path, established strict rules at home. Ashe attended church regularly and was required to return home promptly after school, adhering to a strict schedule.
At the age of seven, Ashe discovered tennis and quickly developed a passion for the sport. He caught the attention of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., a prominent Black tennis coach, who mentored him. Under Johnson’s guidance, Ashe excelled in tennis, reaching the junior national championships in his first tournament. He continued to refine his skills with the help of another coach in St. Louis and won the junior national title in 1960 and 1961. Ranked fifth among junior players in the country, Ashe earned a scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
Ashe’s talent and determination earned him a place on the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1963, making him the first African American to be recruited. He continued to develop his game, receiving valuable guidance from his idol, Pancho Gonzales, and honing his serve-and-volley strategy. In 1968, as an amateur player, Ashe made headlines around the world by winning the U.S. Open, becoming the first African American male to achieve this feat. In 1970, he secured the Australian title, further establishing his place in tennis history. In 1975, Ashe made history once again by defeating Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals, becoming the first African American male player to win the prestigious tournament. That same year, he reached the pinnacle of the tennis world by becoming the world No. 1-ranked player.
Despite his remarkable achievements, Ashe faced health challenges throughout his life. In 1979, he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery, followed by a second bypass operation in 1983. In 1988, he experienced paralysis in his right arm, leading to emergency brain surgery. During this hospital stay, Ashe learned that he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from a blood transfusion. Initially, he kept his diagnosis private, but he decided to share the news in 1992 after learning that USA Today was preparing a story about his health battle.
Once his condition became public, Ashe dedicated himself to raising awareness about AIDS. He delivered a powerful speech at the United Nations, established a foundation, and initiated a $5 million fundraising campaign for AIDS research. Despite his declining health, Ashe remained committed to activism, participating in protests and advocating for important causes. He married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy in 1977, and together they adopted a daughter named Camera.
On February 6, 1993, Ashe passed away in New York City due to AIDS-related pneumonia. His funeral in Richmond, Virginia, drew thousands of mourners who came to pay their respects. Ashe’s legacy extends beyond his groundbreaking tennis career. He is remembered as an inspirational figure who valued service to others and emphasized the importance of self-confidence and preparation in achieving success.