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Arthur Ashe: Much More Than Tennis

Imagine that we could travel back in time to the Richmond, Virginia of the early 1950s and meet the young Arthur Ashe, but know nothing of who he was. We would meet a skinny kid who loved books and music and who, due to segregation, was excluded from playing at any of the local tennis clubs and camps. It would have been hard to so much as imagine that he could become a US Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon champion. Arthur Ashe needed extraordinary qualities to become a champion, and those qualities ended up giving us much more than memories of a great athlete.

Arthur learned to play in the local public park. His father and a local coach, Ronald Charity, noticed his talent and arranged for him to work with Dr. Walter Johnson, who coached Althea Gibson, the first black player ever to win a Grand Slam title. Dr. Johnson gave Arthur a foundation that carried him through an outstanding high school tennis career that earned him a tennis scholarship at UCLA. He became UCLA's top player, which led to his selection in 1963 as the first ever black player to join the US Davis Cup team. In 1965, Arthur won the NCAA singles title and led UCLA to the team championship.

Arthur graduated UCLA in 1966. In 1968, still playing as an amateur, he won the US Open, becoming the first black man to win a Grand Slam title and to be ranked at number one by the USLTA (now USTA). He would go on to win the Australian Open in 1970 and, in one of the most memorable upsets in tennis, to defeat Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. A 1979 heart attack forced him into retirement, and surgery for a second heart attack in 1983 is likely to have been where he contracted the HIV virus that would eventually take his life.

Arthur's athletic talent bore fruit in his fifty-one career titles (singles and doubles). His intelligence, sportsmanship, and integrity also received recognition from the tennis world as he won the 1964 Johnston Award, was elected ATP president in 1974 and Davis Cup captain in 1980, and was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1992.

Next page: Activism

Additional Resources:

Wimbledon History Maze

U.S. Open History Maze

Major Records in Tennis History Maze

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