Tennis: Arthur Ashe, the bravest of champions: John Roberts pays tribute to one of tennis's greatest and most dignified players, who has died in New York

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ARTHUR ASHE was one of those rare human beings capable of surmounting prejudice. He converted his sporting celebrity into a currency for the good and ranks among the noblest of men. The manner of his death, aged 49, in New York on Saturday, from pneumonia resulting from Aids believed to have been contracted from a blood transfusion, seems insulting to the way in which he conducted his life.

It has never been easy for a person from the wrong side of the tennis tramlines, as the great English player, Fred Perry, once remarked, to succeed in a middle- class sport. Consider, then, the case of Ashe, a black from Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the former Confederacy, who was turned away from a local tennis tournament because of his colour when he was barely 12 and grew to be a Wimbledon champion.

Ashe became the only black to win the men's singles title at the All England Club, in 1975, having already triumphed at the inaugural United States Open championships, in 1968, and the Australian Open in 1970.

His achievements followed the pioneering victories of Althea Gibson, a tall athlete from South Carolina, who capped her success at the French championships in 1956 by becoming the first black to win a Wimbledon singles title, in 1957 and again in 1958, adding the US title in those same two years.

The difference was that Ashe was prepared to spread his influence far beyond the rectangle of the court. He was a staunch campaigner for equality for his race. He was also eager to use his name and energies to help raise funds to research diseases: first those relating to the heart, after surgery ended his career as a player, in 1979, then, more recently, joining the fight against Aids.

Little more than a year ago, Ashe co-presented a seminar in Miami concerning the speed and technology of modern tennis. He seemed as healthy as could be expected of a former champion approaching 50 who had suffered major health problems. What Ashe's demeanour concealed was the knowledge he had received four years previously, that he was HIV positive.

He and his wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, had hoped to keep the illness secret longer, fearing the effect publicity might have on their six-year-old daughter, Camera. But when USA Today informed Ashe that it was going to run the story, he decided to call a media conference.

Initially upset and resentful about the breach of privacy, Ashe quickly channelled his emotions into action. Just as in 1979, when he recovered from a quadruple bypass operation and served as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association, so he now sought a way of combating Aids. He is believed to have been infected with the virus during or after a second operation, a double bypass, in 1983.

The Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids, with a goal of raising dollars 5m ( pounds 3.37m) by the end of 1993, was launched on the eve of last year's US Open. And what was he doing a couple of days later? Getting himself arrested in Washington DC during a demonstration for Haitian political refugees.

This was characteristic. In 1985 he was arrested in the capital during protests at the South African embassy, an example of his stance against apartheid. Refused a visa to play in South Africa in 1970, Ashe circumvented the apartheid laws two years later to become the first black to compete in the South African Open. In 1991, he was a member of a 31- strong American delegation which went to South Africa to assess political changes.

It is said that when Nelson Mandela emerged from prison and was asked if there was anyone he would like to see from the United States, he replied: 'How about Arthur Ashe?'

The visits to Africa were not only politically motivated. On one occasion a chance walk along a track in Yaounde, Cameroon, enabled Ashe to see a gangling 11- year-old hitting tennis balls with his uncle. Ashe was so impressed that he gave the boy one of his rackets and recommended him to the French Tennis Federation. The boy was Yannick Noah.

The colour of Ashe's skin was not the only aspect which set him apart from many fellow competitors on the professional tennis tour. Quiet and bespectacled, he was the antithesis of extroverts such as Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors, which perhaps made him an ideal choice to preside over the Association of Tennis Professionals for five years.

Clark Graebner, Ashe's Davis Cup partner in the 1960s, gave an insight into the player in John McPhee's 1969 book, Levels of the Game: 'He plays the game with the lackadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal. . . There's something about him that is swashbuckling, loose. He comes out on the court and he's tight for a while, then he hits a few good shots and he feels the power to surge ahead. He gets looser and more liberal with the shots he tries, and pretty soon he is hitting shots everywhere.

'He does not play percentage tennis. Nobody in his right mind, really, would try those little dink shots he tries as often as he does. . .He hits the ball so hard that it's an outright winner or he misses the shot. When he misses, he just shrugs his shoulders. . .I think he works too hard at trying to keep his cool. It's not human to be that cool. He is penned in. Feelings need an outlet. I hope he is not going to lose his cool by trying to keep his cool.'

There was no fear on that count, at least not on the court. Calm assurance and brilliant strategy brought the 31-year-old Ashe his greatest victory in the 1975 Wimbledon final against the bold, brash Connors, who, the previous year, had crushed the ageing artist, Ken Rosewall.

Ashe was well prepared, having overcome the third-seeded Bjorn Borg in four sets in the quarter- finals and the durable Tony Roche in five sets in the semi- finals. Connors, like Roche, struck the ball left-handed, but with a contrasting counter- punching style, feeding off pace.

Frustrating Connors by mixing a potent serve with delicate shots, including many of the 'dinks' Graebner once despaired of, Ashe concentrated on the vulnerability of his opponent's forehand, winning, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.

Connors, 40, was about to play a match in San Francisco when Ashe's death was announced. 'He had a style and a form all his own,' Connors said. 'He didn't copy anyone's game. Even though tennis was his forte, he made his mark in world events, and I admired the way he handled his life and his ability to treat the good and the bad the same. No matter what the problem or challenge was, he always went out and made sure he got his point across. He was out there taking care of business to the end.' Indeed he was.

Obituary, page 21

(Photograph omitted)