On This Day: Arthur Ashe Retires From Tennis
Today marks the 37th anniversary of when Arthur Ashe pulled the curtain on a career that continues to inspire generations of tennis players.
Born in 1943, Ashe’s rise to the top was one that defied the odds. Growing up in a society where black people were treated as second class citizens, he became one of the most prominent civil rights campaigners in sport. At the age of 20 he became the first black American to play in the Davis Cup.
Ashe’s Davis Cup milestone was the first of many. Whilst still working as a serving officer for the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), he won his maiden grand slam title at the 1968 US Open. He wasn’t just the first African-American winner, he was also the first US Open champion of the Open Era. Two years later, he also won the Australian Open.
“Being an African American playing tennis, his impact on me was great and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, being someone that went to college and was educated and had such a great influence on the world,” James Blake once told CNN about Ashe’s influence.
A two-time grand slam champion, there was still barriers in his career. His support for the American civil rights movement resulted in the South African apartheid government refusing to grant him a visa to play in the 1970 South African Open. It wasn’t until 1973 Ashe became the first black player to participate in the tournament. He wasn’t just there to win matches. He wanted to be there to prove he belonged.
Few could doubt that Ashe belonged on the court. In 1975 he clinched his third and final major title at the Wimbledon Championships. The run to a trophy could have been mistaken for a movie script. The troubled relationship between Ashe and Jimmy Connors was at one of its lowest points. In the lead up to the tournament Connors announced that he was suing Ashe for $5 million over allegations he made in a letter. Meeting each other in the final, Connors was the standout favourite. The American reached the showdown without dropping a set and had beaten Ashe in all six of their previous meetings. Nevertheless, Ashe produced a masterful display to prevail in four sets. As for Connors, he dropped the lawsuit shortly after his defeat.
The sad end of an incredible journey
Four years after his Wimbledon triumph, a cruel twist resulted in the end of Ashe’s career. In 1979 he underwent an urgent a quadruple bypass operation after suffering a heart attack. The world of sport was in shock over what had happened to a seemingly invincible figure. His attempt to return ultimately failed. Ashe’s realisation of his retirement occurred in March 1980. Whilst in Cairo on Holiday, Ashe suffered a bout of angina while out on a run. That sole moment triggered the end of an era.
“As we flew out of Cairo, I knew one thing for sure: My career was over.” Ashe once wrote about the incident.
He officially retired on April 16th, 1980.
A force like no other
Sadly Ashe only managed to enjoy 13 years of retirement before passing away at the age of 49 in 1993 due to complications from AIDS. In 1988 he tested positive for HIV after contracting the illness during a blood transfusion. It wasn’t until 1992 that Ashe told the public that he was HIV-positive after USA Today was set to announce it before him.
“Some of you heard that I had tested positive for HIV,” Ashe said. “That is indeed the case.”
Those words from Ashe’s mouth occurred just 10 months before his death. Like his entire growing up, his quest for helping others remained his focus until his final days. Setting-up an AIDS foundation, he wanted to eradicate misconceptions surrounding the virus.
24 years have now passed since his death, but Ashe continues to inspire. Serena Williams once said ‘his legacy still lives on in one of the greatest ways.’ She isn’t wrong. Remembered for his campaign for civil rights in a world where he was an outsider, the man born in Virginia continues to be remembered. The US Open has named their premier stadium in his honour. Meanwhile the ATP presents an annual humanitarian award named after Ashe.
There has never been a player like Ashe since he died and it is likely there never will be again.