Arthur Ashe: American Sports’ Greatest Black Icon?

The court at the main stadium in Flushing Meadows, home of the US Open, is named after him, a striking statue of Ash graces the grounds, and Arthur Ash Children’s Day is the colorful annual party that kicks off two weeks of the finals. Grand Slam of the Season.

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

Ash’s widow, Jeanne Muthoussami Ash, has dedicated her life to ensuring that the memory of her late husband is preserved for generations, and presidential support is the icing on the cake.

“I’m very proud that Arthur gave his name to kids who had no idea who he was,” she said on CNN’s Open Court program in 2013.

“It was such a big honor. I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, as was Mrs. Obama, so sitting here with her and her daughters was 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 situation that day, it was just great.”

Muthoussami Ash shared her experience with former American Davis Cup star James Blake, who retired from the ATP Tour in 2013.

Continuing the legacy of Arthur Ashe

Blake told her that Ash was his idol and inspiration as a child.

“Being an African American playing tennis, he was a huge influence on me and I wanted to follow in his footsteps as someone who went to college and got an education and had such a big impact on the world,” he said.

The influence Blake speaks of has gone far beyond the narrow confines of professional sports.

Ash once said “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments” and Muthoussami Ash did her best to make his wish come true.

“Playing tennis really gave him the opportunity to talk about the issues that worried him so much,” she said.

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

“We don’t want a whole generation of kids today and generations to come not to know that he is more than a tennis player.”

Born in 1943, Ash grew up in the segregated south of Richmond, Virginia and first tried his tennis skills on the city’s black-only playground.

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

A member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), Ash was ultimately required to serve in the military and spent three years at the US Military Academy at West Point, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.

Ash was still an active officer when he won his first Grand Slam title at the 1968 US Open, the first in the Open Era in which professionals were also allowed to compete.

“He was not only the first African American to win the US Open, but also the first American to win the US Open, because the US Open only started in 1968,” Muthoussami Ash emphasizes.

Ash was discharged from the army in 1969 and, after winning his second Grand Slam title at the 1970 Australian Open, turned professional.

A well-known supporter of the American civil rights movement, Ash’s political principles were tested when the apartheid government in South Africa denied him a visa to compete in their national open championship later that year.

Ash campaigned for South Africa’s exclusion from the International Tennis Federation, but although his demands were not met, he was eventually allowed a visa to compete in the 1973 South African Open, becoming the first black man to do so.

Ash continued to oppose the apartheid regime, and after the release of Nelson Mandela after serving 27 years in prison, the tennis star returned to South Africa in 1991 as part of a 31-man delegation to oversee the country’s profound political changes.

He met Mandela several times and humbly remarked, “Compared to Mandela’s sacrifice, my own life was almost self-indulgent. When I think about him, my own political efforts seem insignificant.”

But others would disagree. Andrew Yang, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, once said of Ash, “He took on the burden of race and wore it like a cloak of dignity.”

Young, a pastor-turned-leading politician, presided over Ash and Jeanne’s wedding in 1977 after they met just six months earlier at a charity event where Muthoussami Ash was in attendance as a working photographer.

Ash was by then a three-time Grand Slam singles champion, shocking top-seeded Jimmy Connors in the epic 1975 Wimbledon final, but this was to be his last as injuries and eventual illness took their toll.

The world was shocked in 1979 when Ash 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 in typical fastidious fashion.

“He had about 30 letters that he wrote personally to people, contracts that he had, promises and obligations that he had to people, he just wrote them personally and said: “I am retiring and I want you to were the first to know,” recalls Muthoussami Ash.

In retirement, he became captain of the US Davis Cup team, but in 1983 he had to undergo a second heart operation in New York.

It is believed that it was during this operation that Ash contracted the HIV virus as a result of a transfusion of contaminated blood.

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

It was only in 1992 that he was forced to make himself known and, true to his ideals, began a campaign to debunk the myths about AIDS and the ways of infection.

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

Ash completed his memoir Days of Grace shortly before his death on February 6, 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

For Blake, the book became a source of inspiration. “Once I read Days of Grace, that has always been my answer to what is your favorite book of all time,” he told Moutoussamy Ashe.

Young officiated at Ash’s funeral in Richmond, attended by thousands of mourners. He was buried next to his mother Matty, who died in 1950 when he was only six years old.

Later that year, when he died, Ash was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

It was the first of a series of high awards in recognition of a truly outstanding person, but for his widow, who has carried his torch for so many years, his impact on society and the younger generation is very important.

“I think that if Arthur were here today, he would be promoting tennis at the grassroots level, painting a metaphor that tennis is not just a sport, but more importantly, a profession that can get you a college scholarship. to finish school. , “she said.

Others like Blake and Mel Washington followed in Ash’s footsteps in the men’s section of men’s sports, but Muthoussami Ash is equally awed by the impact the Williams sisters have had on African-American sports.

“Venus and Serena, I am so proud of what they both do. Venus has her own issues, but she is moving forward in her life and is still actively involved in playing tennis whenever she can.

“I think Serena was in great shape not only in tennis but as a person during this particular US Open,” she added, reflecting on her 17th world No. 1 singles crown.

Muthoussami Ash hopes that the Arthur Ash Learning Center, which houses many of her own photographs and memorabilia collected throughout his life, can find a permanent home.

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

“That they will understand how important it is to be a well-rounded person, that you may not be a great champion, but if you are a well-rounded person, then you can do almost anything to succeed in life. “

Ash himself is a perfect example of this, wrestling with his humble background and hidden prejudices to achieve the highest honor that can be given to a person in the United States.

“Racism is not an excuse not to do your best,” Ash said, and he testifies eloquently to the truth of his words.