Obituary: Arthur Ashe
Monday 08 February 1993
FEW CHAMPIONS are larger than the game they play. Most of them move into the arena of competition for perhaps a decade or longer, then drift away into other endeavours, leaving others to take their places at the top of their fields. Gradually, these athletes become far removed from the public consciousness.
Arthur Ashe never became so removed. Here was a man who captured the first US Open Tennis Championship in 1968 and led his nation to victory in the Davis Cup the same year, who won the Australian Open in 1970, who triumphed at Wimbledon in 1975. Here was a former President of the Association of Tennis Professionals, a highly respected Davis Cup captain, and a sportsman in the truest sense of the word. But Ashe was much more than the sum of his achievements. He was someone who transcended his sport both before and after he quit the competitive game.
As a black man in the predominantly white world of tennis, he felt a special responsibility to his race. As big a burden as it must have been, Ashe understood the need for him to set an example, to win and lose with equanimity. He was grateful to Althea Gibson, the proud and determined woman who won Wimbledon and the US championships in 1957 and 1958, for clearing his path as the first black player to take the major championships. Gibson's triumphs left Ashe in a more comfortable position to make his mark on the men's tour without having to be such a pioneer, but the fact remained that her success only removed a small layer of pressure from the shoulders of Ashe.
He was electrifying to watch, a dazzling shotmaker with an audacious arsenal, capable of producing winners from anywhere on the court, prone to making mistakes which could lead to his losing agonising matches. He had one of the best serves of his time, delivered with a remarkably smooth motion which gave him extraordinary power and precise placement.
Above all, Ashe was a charismatic competitior, combining a flamboyant style of play with a placid demeanour, keeping his opponents guessing about how he was feeling, remaining imperturbable even when tension surrounded him. What made him such an attractive player to audiences worldwide was the fierce elegance of his strokes and his unfailing regard for sportsmanship. Ashe may well have been the most popular player of his era (from the middle of the Sixties to the end of the Seventies), and all of his successes were appreciated by a large legion of supporters. But his most celebrated triumph was his Wimbledon conquest of Jimmy Connors 18 years ago. Ashe was less than a week away from turning 32, facing the allegedly invincible defending champion and top seed, 10 years his junior. Connors was someone he had never beaten before and would not defeat again, but Ashe toppled the favourite with as cerebral a display as has ever been given on Centre Court. He baffled Connors with a wide array of spins and speeds, exchanging his normally potent groundstrokes for subtle variation of pace, swinging his serve wide to Connors's two-handed backhand to pull the left- hander off the court, and refusing to allow him any rhythm. In short, Ashe produced a tactical masterpiece, sweepingly altering his game for the occasion. His 6- 1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victory was a crowning moment in his career.
Ashe's playing career was, however, only one of many significant chapters in his versatile life. He became a superb commentator and speaker, and an accomplished writer. Over the last decade of his life, he was a contributing columnist for the Washington Post (his last piece appeared yesterday). He wrote two autobiographies and a definitive three- volume history of black athletes, A Hard Road to Glory (1988).
Ashe always attached himself to causes, which was why he placed such high value on his journey to Johannesburg in 1973. At long last he had been granted a visa to play the South African Open, but his primary purpose in going was to see if his presence could make a difference in the fight against apartheid. He knew that there were those who strongly opposed his involvement, who felt it would be counterproductive for him to go there. But Ashe persevered, took his voice of reason to different South African communities, and used his platform as a sports celebrity to serve as a spokesman on an issue about which he cared deeply. He won new admirers with his graceful conduct in that setting.
That was the way Ashe led his life and went about his business, speaking with great clarity and vision, controlling his emotions, bringing sceptics around to his point of view. He had learnt to play tennis in his youth from a highly regarded coach, Dr Walter Johnson, in his home town of Richmond, Virginia. Knowing the disadvantages Ashe would encounter due to the colour of his skin, Johnson taught him to call any shot within six inches of a line in favour of his opponent whenever he played a match as a junior; that way, no one could possibly accuse Ashe of cheating. But Johnson's wisdom went well beyond the lines of a tennis court. 'Those whom the gods wish to destroy,' he would remind him, 'they first make mad.'
Ashe carried that message with him wherever he went, but his temperament was tested to the hilt by activists who wanted him to be more militant in his stands, and by those who expected him to do and say things which did not reflect his ethical or intellectual standards. The radicals of the Left and conservatives on the Right were frustrated by what they perceived as his middle-of-the-road responses to hard and complex problems.
A classic case in point was a verbal exchange Ashe once had with the former civil-rights leader and Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Speaking about race relations, Jackson admonished Ashe for not 'pushing harder and being more aggressive'. Ashe was typically composed but he demonstrated his strength of character and conviction when he looked Jackson directly in the eye and said, 'I'm just not arrogant enough for you and I never will be.'
That was a remark Ashe could well have made many times in similar circumstances to those who resembled Jackson in terms of content and character. But Ashe ultimately realised that he could accomplish more by sticking by his own standards. Late in his life, he confronted the crisis of Aids, and here again he had to deal with the harsh voices of the adamant. He deserved the chance to determine his own destiny in the movement, but his phone rang off the hook with intruders who could not resist exposing him to their particular points of view. Considering how he had contracted the disease, and why he had been forced to make a public statement about his condition, it was not easy for Ashe to respond patiently to highly charged fellow victims of Aids, to listen to their demands. But he did.
Ashe's health had become a serious problem for him in July 1979. Only 36, still ranked No 7 in the world, he suffered his first heart attack, and his career was curtailed abruptly. At the end of that year, he had his first bypass operation, and then came another operation in 1983. Five years later, in September 1988, he lost all motor function in his right hand. That led to brain surgery, which led to the discovery that he had Aids. He contracted the disease from one of his open-heart operations, presumably the second.
In any case, he chose in 1988 not to go public about his condition. He talked it over with his wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and they agreed that an announcement of any kind in the media would have 'unfairly infringed upon our family's right to privacy'. His daughter, Camera, was not even two years old when he found out he had Aids. He wanted to deal with this hardship in the privacy of his home, not under the harsh glare of society's scrutiny.
Then, much to Ashe's dismay, someone called the newspaper USA Today in April 1992 and told them the news about Ashe. Now he no longer had any alternative. He asked USA Today to give him a few days to sort out what he wanted to do. He called a press conference in New York and told the world that he did indeed have Aids. There was a whirlwind of debate among the media about whether or not USA Today should have pursued the story. Ashe himself argued, 'I am sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now. After all, I am not running for some office of public trust, nor do I have stockholders to account to. It is only that I fall under the dubious umbrella of 'public figure'.'
Traumatic as that exposure surely was, Ashe put it behind him and looked positively toward the future. He let the Aids activists know that he would respond to the cause in his own way, on his own terms, and would not surrender to their expectation. Soon thereafter, he established the Arthur Ashe Foundation to Defeat Aids. He held a special tennis event at the the US Open the day before the 1992 tournament began, and Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles were among the leading players who participated.
It is doubtful that there has ever been a more erudite sportsman than Arthur Ashe. He was held in the highest esteem by players, press and public alike. He was a distinguished spokesman and statesman, an ambassador without portfolio, a man who moved beyond himself all through his life. No one described him with more clarity than his closest friend, Donald Dell, who once said, 'Arthur Ashe has a quiet exterior but underneath lies someone who is very forceful, always changing, ever different, always a leader. He believes in striving for excellence by example, not by what he says, but what he does.'
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