By DERON SNYDER
— “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments.” – Arthur Ashe
Tennis was our introduction to Arthur Ashe and he took over from there. He used the platform to become a civil rights activist, human rights champion and a model for black thinker-athletes.
The sport turned our attention on the native of Richmond, Va., and he forced us to consider more pressing matters, such as apartheid, HIV/AIDS and the barriers of poverty, privilege and racism.
But the tennis came first and he was atop the game in 1975, when he became the first African-American man to win Wimbledon.
“After 40 years, his legacy still lives on in one of the greatest ways,” Serena Williams told reporters at Wimbledon last week. “That was just an amazing match that he played against (Jimmy) Connors. … It’s been (important) for African Americans, not just in tennis, but in all sports, for breaking barriers.”
Ashe burst through the door at Wimbledon after doing likewise at the U.S. Open (1968) and Australian Open (1970). Unfortunately, no one has been able to follow him. Ashe remains as the only African-American man to win a Grand Slam event, one of the sport’s four major tournaments. In fact, only one other black man has accomplished the feat; France’s Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983.
Ashe’s title match against Connors was a contrast in styles. Ashe was a UCLA graduate who served as second lieutenant in the Army. He carried himself as a gentleman with an officer’s bearing and was a professed lover of learning. Connors, the defending champion, was at the fore of tennis’ “showman” era. He basked in being a rebel, bragging that he never read books and showing no interest in etiquette.
There was saltiness between the two men. Ashe had questioned Connors’ patriotism because the latter skipped a U.S. Davis Cup match to participate in a lucrative exhibition earlier that year. Ashe rubbed it in by wearing his Davis Cup warm-up jacket with USA emblazoned on the front. He jumped out to a quick two-set lead and won the match in four sets, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
They shook hands at the net without saying a word. It was Ashe’s last appearance in a Grand Slam final.
“Unfortunately I never got to meet Arthur,” Roger Federer told reporters at Wimbledon last week. “But I’m aware what an influential and important person he was in our game, especially for many other people as well. He’s been a leader. I was very happy for him that he was able to win here and utilize his fame for so many great things.”