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’ve experienced racism as a tennis player for a long time,” 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.”
“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.
“There were just not many black players”
“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.
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 “for whites only”.
“All brawn and brainless”
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.
“All around me I saw these athletes coming out in front trying to demand civil rights. But I was still with mixed emotions,” Ashe said in an interview in the film. “There were definitely 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 around the world about black athletes because we tend to be disproportionately successful in athletics” , adds Ashe. “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 feel that way. And the ironic thing is he was the most intellectual person on tour at the time.”
A turning point
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 assassination, Ashe said: “I was very angry. I also felt a bit helpless. Things would be different now because, I mean, he was kind 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.”
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.
“Calm and confident determination”
“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,” Washington said.
He married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe in 1977, and in December 1986 his daughter Camera was born.
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 reminds me a bit 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, intelligence, calmness, his statement would be more militant than mine,” said Edwards, a civil rights activist and professor of sociology, in an interview in the documentary.
“To date, we haven’t found another person who could speak to both sides of the barricades, and this bridge has become so critical and critically important,” Edwards adds.
Inspire a generation of athletes
“What I don’t want is for him to be thought, at the end of the day, as…or remembered as a great tennis player. I mean, it’s not not a contribution to be made to society,” Ashe said in an interview with 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.”