NEW YORK — Virginia Wade has many memories of Arthur Ashe, but the one that sticks in her mind isn’t from 50 years ago in New York, when in 1968 they won the first U.S. Open singles titles and Ashe became the first African American man to win a Grand Slam championship. Her favorite memory is from seven years later at Wimbledon.
Ashe claimed the last of his three major titles in England in 1975 in a match against heavy favorite Jimmy Connors. Wade remembers cool, unruffled Ashe’s daring tennis against the 22-year-old Connors, who hollered back at the crowd when it shouted encouragement. She also remembers the changeovers.
“It was an incredible match. I mean, Arthur was an innovator,” Wade, 73, said last week. “It was the first time he sort of sat down at the side of the court in between — they didn’t have chairs at the side of the court for a long time; we sort of had to towel off and go on — but he would sit and cover his head with the towel and just think. It was the first time you were conscious of the mental side of tennis. Arthur was instrumental in that. . . . Arthur was a thinker.”
As the U.S. Open celebrates its 50th anniversary, the U.S. Tennis Association is also honoring Ashe for all that he was: thinker, pioneer, activist, champion.
The 1968 winner already has a significant presence at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center — the facility’s biggest and most prestigious stage is named for him — but this fortnight, his visage is inescapable. There is a special photo exhibit on the walkway between Court 17 and the Grandstand, and a special “Arthur Ashe legacy booth” decked out in the colors of UCLA, his alma mater. Fans can be seen walking around sporting white T-shirts featuring a picture of Ashe wearing sunglasses, cool as can be.
At the start of Monday’s evening session, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams gave Ashe’s younger brother Johnnie a folded American flag in honor of his brother, who died in 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia after contracting the disease from a tainted blood transfusion. Ashe was an Army lieutenant when he won the U.S. Open as an amateur in 1968; Johnnie, 70, was in the Marine Corps for 20 years.
Johnnie Ashe, like Wade, remembers his brother as an intellectual and an innovator, as someone who was meant to change the world. That’s why, when Johnnie came to understand that the military wouldn’t send two brothers into active duty in a war zone at the same time, he volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam. He was three months away from coming home.
“Arthur didn’t need Vietnam. Arthur had his own Vietnam right there in the United States in those days, and some of the things that I saw while I was there — he didn’t need that,” Johnnie said Monday night. “The thing that I always think about, and this was always the most important thing in my mind, was that Arthur represented so many possibilities. Arthur was the first to do so much so often that those of us who knew him would say: ‘What’s next? What mountain was he going to climb next?’ Arthur was always different.”
Since Johnnie stayed on active duty, Arthur could compete for both the U.S. amateur and U.S. Open championships in 1968. He is the only person to have won both.
Ashe had many projects that helped extend his legacy beyond that of a pioneering tennis player who won 33 career singles championships; ever the thinker, bringing tennis and educational opportunities to youths was Ashe’s passion. He helped found the National Junior Tennis & Learning network in 1968, a grass-roots organization designed to make tennis more accessible. Today, the NJTL receives significant funding from the USTA.
“Growing up, Arthur was a sponge. . . . That was just his nature,” Johnnie Ashe said. “He was a voracious reader, and he had to satisfy his intellect. I tell people if Arthur had concentrated on just tennis, he would have been the best in the world. But tennis was a vehicle. . . . He wanted to be able to take kids outside of their environs, outside of their element for a little while and expose them to what they can be. . . . And, let’s face it, most parents don’t have the wherewithal to do that. It’s not easy. What happens is you get somebody like Arthur — and following Arthur, LeBron James is starting to do things — to expose kids. It’s so important that that happens.”
Billie Jean King called the NJTL one of the best things that ever happened to the sport.
“Arthur and I had many conversations over the years about how to we make tennis better — for the players, the fans and the sport,” King said in an email Monday. “We both thought tennis needed to be more hospitable, and for Arthur a big part of that was improving access and opportunity to our sport for everyone. Arthur, and Althea Gibson before him, opened doors for people of color in our sport. And, from Venus and Serena [Williams] to Naomi Osaka and Frances Tiafoe, we are seeing the results of his efforts today.”
Ashe’s efforts as a humanitarian inspired James Blake, who now chairs the USTA Foundation. Blake was growing up when Ashe’s humanitarian career was front and center, both as the leader of the group Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid and as a figure who spoke out to educate the nation about AIDS.
“He never looked for sympathy,” Blake said. “Instead, he looked for a way to make life better for others that were struggling.”
Blake counts himself as one who benefited from Ashe’s barrier-breaking career. It’s a legacy not lost on the USTA; Katrina Adams, its president and chief executive, is a black woman.
But before Maria Sharapova lost in the fourth round to Carla Suarez Navarro and the riveted crowd turned its attention to Roger Federer’s match, Monday night was about Arthur Ashe. Johnnie’s flag came wrapped in a wooden display case.
“I was thinking what I was going to design to keep it in, but I don’t have to. This is nice,” Johnnie said.
“Until Arthur came along and Althea came along, tennis was a sport of the elites. Then you get two playground children — one from Harlem, one from Richmond — to break into the bigs. People had to stop and think about that. It opened the doors for other people, and that’s what it was all about. That’s what it was all about for him.”