‘Not everyone can be Arthur Ashe’: how the tennis legend created a blueprint for sports activism

But the historic match symbolized the tension Ash has faced throughout his career; the weight of expectations from the tennis world, the racism he faced as a black athlete, and his humanitarian work.

“I think I can handle just about anything. As an African American athlete, I have experienced racism as a tennis player way back,” Ash says in an interview with the documentary. “I’ve played extraordinary matches under incredible circumstances, but Wimbledon has tied my whole life together.”

“Just to think that he (Ash) could perform on the tennis court the way he did and then decide to be an activist the way he was, which a lot of black players would be uncomfortable doing at the time… he was just very different ,” Washington told CNN Sport.

Mel Washington in action during Wimbledon at the All England Club in London.

“There just weren’t many black players”

When he turned professional At the age of 20, Washington was one of the few black players on the tour and was announced as the next Arthur Ashe.

“It was great to be compared to him, but considering I turned pro in 1989 and he, you know, won Grand Slams in the 1960s and 70s, this just shows you a glaring, obvious fact. that there weren’t many of them. black players since he last won his last major,” he says.

Like Washington, Ash started playing tennis at an early age.

Born in July 1943 in Richmond, Virginia, he was introduced to the sport when his father, Arthur Sr., became a caretaker. Brook Field Park in 1947, a separate playground equipped with tennis courts, a baseball field, a swimming pool, an open area and basketball courts.

As his tennis skills improved, Ash needed to step up as the opponents he faced. However, his options were limited by segregation. For example, he was often shunned at the nearby Bird Park youth tournament because the public tennis courts were “whites only”.

At the age of 10, Ash had a chance encounter with doctor and tennis coach Dr. Jones. Walter Johnson, who will change his life. Johnson, mentor to the 11-time Grand Slam champion. Althea Gibsoncoached Ash and helped him win several junior tennis competitions.
Ash spent his senior year at high school in St. Louis. Louis, Missouri before being offered a full scholarship to UCLA. AT 1963he became the first black American to play on a U.S. Davis Cup team.

“All muscles and no brains”

President Nixon hosts the US Davis Cup team at the White House.  Left to right: Arthur Ash;  Clark Grebner;  Dennis Ralston, coach;  President Nixon;  Donald Doll;  Bob Luts and Stan Smith.

Ash rose to prominence in the world of tennis, his reluctance to speak out on social issues affecting black communities in the US caused friction between him and members of the civil rights movement.

In 1967, Harry Edwards, a civil rights activist and professor of sociology at San Jose State University, founded Olympic Human Rights Project (OPHR). He used the group to stage a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest the racism faced by black athletes in the US. While athletes including NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar championed the movement, Ash did not.

“All around me, I saw these athletes coming forward trying to demand civil rights. But I still had mixed feelings,” Ash says in an interview in the film. “There were 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, Ash balanced between maintaining political neutrality to appease his white colleagues and publicly denouncing the racism faced by black athletes.

“I feel 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 good at athletics,” adds Ash. “Some people think we are all muscular and brainless. And I like to fight this myth.”

Speaking of Ash’s observation, Washington says, “The myth continued, the racism continued, the discrimination continued.

“I perfectly understand how Arthur felt. The irony is that at the time he was the most intelligent person on the tour.”

Turning point

In 1968, after Ash graduated from UCLA and served in the US Army, the American political landscape changed.

The two figureheads of the African American equality movement are civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and politician Robert F. Kennedy – were killed within two months of each other.

Speaking about King’s murder, Ash said: “I was very angry. I also felt a little helpless. It would be different now, because, I mean, he looked like our knight in shining armor.

“As a black American, I felt the need to do something urgently, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Arthur Ash plays during the Wimbledon Men's Singles Tournament.
The world of tennis also experienced a tectonic shift at dawn open erawhen professionals were allowed to compete with amateurs. Ash won his first Grand Slam title at the 1968 US Open when he defeated Dutchman Tom Okker, becoming the first and only black man to win the tournament.
Earlier that year, Ash made his first political speech at a church in Washington, D.C., where he spoke about his experiences as a black athlete in society and voting despite being punished by the army. He also joined athletes such as baseball legend Jackie Robinson in a statement demanding that the USOC approve South Africa’s ongoing ban from the Olympics.

Ash’s speech marked a turning point in his 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”

In 1969 he co-founded National Junior Tennis League help children from disadvantaged communities improve their academic and life skills through tennis. In the same year, he also applied for a visa to participate in the South African Open, but was rejected due to the apartheid regime in the country.
However, he became eligible to compete in 1973 and became the first black professional tennis player to compete in the South African National Championship. Ash said to the South African government that he would not play in front of a segregated crowd and would not succumb to restrictions on his freedom of speech while in the country.

“A lot of people were against him leaving, but he went anyway, which just shows you, you know, the power to do what’s right. The power to speak up, follow your conscience and just do the right thing,” says Washington.

Ash worked with fellow activist Andrew Yang to take action opposed apartheid by raising money to help black South African students go to college in the US and promising not to return to the country after the 1976 Soweto uprising.

He married photographer Jeanne Muthoussami-Esh in 1977 and had a daughter, Camera, in December 1986.

US Captain Ash and player John McEnroe during the 1984 Davis Cup in Atlanta, Georgia.

After retiring from tennis in 1980 and a subsequent five-year captaincy on the US Davis Cup team, Ash developed a plan to energize athletes.

He had the ability to facilitate subtle discussions between opposite sides of the political spectrum, a skill Washington said was “a special gift.”

“His behavior kind of reminds me of Nelson Mandela,” adds Washington. “That’s why it’s one of the reasons he was able to do what he could do, do what he could do.

“It’s very powerful when you have a very calm and confident determination.”

“Arthur would come in and make statements that, apart from the gentility, the politeness, the intelligence, the calmness, his statement would be more militant than mine,” says Edwards, a human rights activist and professor of sociology. interview in the documentary.

“To this day, we have not found another person who could speak to both sides of the barricades, and this bridge has become so critical,” adds Edwards.

Inspiring a generation of athletes

Arthur Ashe officiating Taylor-Emerson at the Royal Club.
Towards the end of his life, Ash spoke out for marginalized communities, inspiring a generation of sports activists, including Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, LeBron James as well as Naomi Osaka – follow in his footsteps.
Ash learned in 1988 that he HIV positive during the passage of tests due to toxoplasmosis. Four years later, he publicly acknowledged his AIDS diagnosis and addressed the UN General Assembly on World AIDS Day.
He worked towards the end of apartheid with Nelson Mandela and protested against the US policy of returning Haitian refugees to their homeland, for which he was arrested.
Before it death from AIDS-related pneumonia, in February 1993 he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation to Fight AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.

“What I don’t want is to be thought of when all is said and done as… or remembered as a great tennis player. I mean, it’s not a contribution to society,” Ash says in an interview in the documentary.

Washington says Ash has “created a roadmap of sorts” for today’s athletes to be active.

“Not everyone can be Arthur Ashe. Not everyone can be Nelson Mandela… these are giants in the world of activism,” says Washington. “I don’t think there has ever been a tennis player as active and loud as he is.”