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Born in 1943, Arthur Ashe faced limited opportunities in highly segregated Richmond, Va., his hometown. That he became a star in a historically “white” sport was a testament to his ability to forge ahead in spite of major life challenges.
Once he achieved fame, Ashe used it to advocate on behalf of victims of AIDS and heart disease, and worked to create a more equitable proving ground for minority athletes. We ran into Ashe’s determined spirit near the monument built in his honor on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
Q: What type of support did you receive as you began climbing the ladder of success at a very young age?
A: “Drummed into me, above all, by my dad, by the whole family, was that without your good name, you would be nothing.”
Ashe was the older of Arthur Sr. and Mattie Ashe’s two sons, and his parents placed great emphasis on education. Mattie taught Arthur to read by age 4. But she died when he was only 6 years old.
Ashe’s father—worried his sons would get into trouble without their mother—ran a tight household. The boys went to church every Sunday and had to go straight home after school. “I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school, and I kept to that rule through high school,” Ashe said.
At the age of 7, Ashe picked up the game of tennis at a park near his home, and despite his small size, excelled at the sport, gaining the attention of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr. of Lynchburg, who was active in the black tennis community. He took the promising young Ashe under his wing.
Q: How do you account for your speedy rise to success in tennis?
A: “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Taught by his parents to work hard to excel and to believe in himself, Ashe reached the junior national championships in his first tournament and won the junior national title in 1960 and 1961, after moving to St. Louis. Ranked the fifth-best junior tennis player in the country, Ashe won a scholarship to the University of California-Los Angeles, where he earned a degeree in business administration.
In 1963 he became the first African-American selected to play for the U.S. team in the Davis Cup, and he won the 1965 NCAA championship. He won the U.S. Open title in 1968.
Q: How did you use your fame to become a social activist?
A: “You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.”
Ashe knew his prominence in a historically white sport had given him a unique forum for addressing one of the major social issues of his day: inequality of opportunity for minorities. He became active in establishing inner-city youth tennis programs and was one of the founders of the Association of Men’s Tennis Professionals, which helped grow the prize money for tournaments.
He also used the public forum to speak out against apartheid in South Africa and publicized the country’s denial of his visa to play tennis there because of the color of his skin, helping draw worldwide attention to the country’s racist government. Ashe then went on, at age 31, to win Wimbledon and was ranked the No. 1 tennis player in the world for the second time.
Q: After retiring from professional tennis, you suffered massive health problems. How did you keep going?
A: “If I were to say ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.”
After retiring in 1980, Ashe developed a successful career as a commentator for HBO Sports and ABC Sports, worked as a columnist for The Washington Post and Tennis magazine, and published a three-volume history of African-American athletes, A Hard Road to Glory (1988). He also won election to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.
But during that same era, Ashe suffered from heart disease, undergoing quadruple bypass surgery in 1979, and then a second heart surgery four years later. In 1988, he had to have brain surgery after his right arm was paralyzed. Despite his health issues, Ashe saw the opportunity to use his personal tragedy for good, becoming national chairman of the American Heart Association.
Q: What inspired you to become an advocate for AIDS research when there was still so much prejudice against people who had the disease?
A: “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”
After his brain surgery, Ashe was told he was HIV-positive because of a transfusion of infected blood during one of his heart operations. He and his wife and daughter were devastated by the news and at first decided not to make it public because of all the negative publicity around the virus.
But in 1992, USA Today learned Ashe had AIDS, and the newspaper was working on a story about his health problems. As a result, he decided to go public—once again using his celebrity status on behalf of health and social activism. He delivered a speech at the United Nations to raise awareness about the disease, which was epidemic in parts of Africa, and he started the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to raise money for AIDS research, laying the groundwork for a $5 million fundraising campaign.
Ashe died only a year later, and 6,000 mourners attended the service to honor a man who had employed his elite status as an athlete as an opportunity to create a worldwide platform for promoting health research and fighting social and racial inequities.