Story Highlights

Arthur Ashe won three Grand Slam titles

First African-American to achieve the feat of winning a Slam

Died aged 49 in 1993 from an AIDS-related illness following a transfusion of infected blood

Flushing Meadows stadium pitch named in his honor


Tennis hero, inspirational role model for African Americans, social activist and high-profile campaigner for the HIV and AIDS communities, Arthur Ashe died in 1993, but it was a measure of his influence that decades later late, it still shines just as much.

The main pitch of the Flushing Meadows stadium, where the US Open takes place, is named in his honor, a striking statue of Ashe adorns the pitch, while Arthur Ashe Children’s Day is a glittering annual party kicking off the fortnight of the final. grand slam of the season.

Michelle Obama was the guest of honor in 2013, while Bradley Cooper, Carmelo Anthony, Justin Bieber and Will Ferrell have been included in an eclectic list of celebrities over the years.

Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe, has made it her mission to ensure that her late husband’s memory is preserved for generations and the presidential endorsement is the icing on the cake.

“It makes me very proud that Arthur had his name brought up for the kids who had no idea who he was,” she told CNN’s Open Court program in 2013.

“It was such a great honor. I was born and raised in South Chicago, just like Mrs. Obama, so sitting here next to her with her daughters was just a lot of fun.

“And that she is so supportive of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center and so supportive of Arthur’s legacy. I don’t think we could have asked for a better location that day, it was just wonderful.

Moutoussamy Ashe shared his experiences with former USA Davis Cup star James Blake, who retired from the ATP Tour in 2013.

Blake told her that Ashe was her idol and inspiration growing up.

“As an African American playing tennis, his impact on me was tremendous and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, to be someone who went to college, was educated and had such a big influence on the game. world,” he said.

The impact Blake speaks of went far beyond the narrow confines of professional sport.

Ashe once said, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis exploits” and Moutoussamy Ashe did his best to promote his wish.

“The game of tennis really gave her a platform to talk about the issues that were so close to her heart,” she said.

“I think he was a role model for a lot of kids, which is why it’s so important to promote his legacy today.

“We don’t want an entire generation of children today and future generations not knowing that he was more than a tennis player.”

Born in 1943, Ashe grew up in the segregated south of Richmond, Va., and first tested his tennis skills on an all-blacks playground in the city.

He developed his talent in high school and earned a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963, becoming the first African American to represent the United States in the Davis Cup that year.

A member of the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), Ashe eventually had to do his military service and spent three years at the United States Military Academy at West Point, reaching the rank of second lieutenant.

Ashe was still a serving officer when he won his first Grand Slam title at the 1968 US Open, the first in the open era where professionals were also allowed to compete.

“He was not only the first African-American man to win the US Open, but he was actually the first American period to win the US Open because the US Open didn’t start until 1968,” emphasizes Moutoussamy Ashe.

Ashe was discharged from the military in 1969 and, after winning his second Grand Slam crown at the 1970 Australian Open, turned professional.

A strong supporter of the American civil rights movement, Ashe’s political principles were tested when he was refused a visa by the apartheid government of South Africa to compete in their national open later that year.

Ashe campaigned for South Africa to be barred from the International Tennis Federation, but although his demands were not met, he was eventually granted a visa to compete in the South Africa Open in 1973, the first black man to do so.

Ashe continued to speak out against the apartheid regime and after Nelson Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison, the tennis star returned to South Africa in 1991 as part of a 31-person delegation to observe the profound political changes in the country.

He met Mandela several times and modestly observed: “Compared to Mandela’s sacrifice, my own life has been almost self-indulgent. When I think of him, my own political efforts seem puny.

But others would disagree. Andrew Young, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, once said of Ashe, “He took the burden of race and wore it like a cloak of dignity.”

Young, a prominent pastor-turned-politician, presided over Ashe’s wedding to Jeanne in 1977 after they met at a charity event just six months prior, which Moutoussamy Ashe had attended as a professional photographer.

Ashe was then a three-time Grand Slam singles champion after shocking top seed Jimmy Connors in an epic Wimbledon final in 1975, but it was to be his last as injury and possible illness took their toll.

The world was shocked in 1979 when super-fit Ashe suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery.

He was about to return to the tennis tour when further complications arose and he was forced to announce his retirement, doing so in usually tedious fashion.

“He had about 30 letters he wrote individually to people, contracts he had, promises and commitments he had to people, he just wrote them personally and said, ‘I take my retirement and I want you to be the first to know it,” recalls Moutoussamy Ashe.

Upon retirement, he took over as captain of the United States Davis Cup team, but in 1983 he had to undergo a second round of heart surgery in New York.

It was during this operation that Ashe is said to have contracted the HIV virus through infected blood transfusions.

He learned of the diagnosis in 1988 after another health problem, but for the sake of their two-year-old adopted daughter Camera, Ashe and his wife kept the illness a secret.

It was not until 1992 that he was forced to go public and, true to his ideals, began campaigning to debunk myths about AIDS and how it is contracted.

He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to build on the work of an institute he had created to promote public health.

Ashe completed her memoir, “Days of Grace”, shortly before her death on February 6, 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

For Blake, the book was a source of inspiration. “As soon as I read ‘Days of Grace’, it was always my response to your all-time favorite book,” he told Moutoussamy Ashe.

Young officiated at Ashe’s funeral in Richmond, which was attended by thousands of mourners. He was buried alongside his mother, Mattie, who died in 1950 when he was just six years old.

Later in the year of his death, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

It was the first in a series of high-level honors in recognition of a truly remarkable man, but for his widow, who has carried his torch for so many years, it is his impact on communities and young generation that is so important.

“I think if Arthur were here today he would be promoting tennis at a grassroots level, drawing this metaphor that tennis is not just a sport, but more importantly, a profession that could empower you. get a university scholarship to enable you to go to school. ,” she says.

Others like Blake and Mal Washington have followed in Ashe’s footsteps on the men’s side of the men’s game, but Moutoussamy Ashe is equally thrilled with the impact Williams’ sisters have had on African American sports.

“Venus and Serena, I’m so proud of what they both do. Venus has her challenges, but she moves her life forward and still stays very involved in the game of tennis whenever she can.

“I think Serena has been at the top of her game, not just in tennis but as a person at this particular US Open,” she added, referring to the 17th Grand Slam singles crown of the n °1 worldwide.

Moutoussamy Ashe hopes the Arthur Ashe Learning Center, which contains a wealth of his own photographs and memories collected over his lifetime, can find a permanent home.

“It’s really important that not only today’s generation, but also generations to come, understand him as more than just an athlete, more than just a patient, more than a student and a coach.

“That they understand the importance of being a complete human being, that you may not be a great champion, but if you are a complete human being you can do just about anything to be successful in life. ”

Ashe himself is the perfect example, fighting against his humble origins and an undercurrent of prejudice to achieve the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an individual in the United States.

“Racism is no excuse for not doing your best,” Ashe said, and he eloquently testifies to the truth of his words.

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