Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. was the biggest groundbreaker in the history of tennis.
Born in Richmond, Virginia on July 10, 1943, he was reading by the age of 4. Two years later, his life was turned upside down when his beloved mother, Mattie, passed away at 27 years of age due to heart complications, a condition that was prevalent in his family. Arthur and his younger brother, Johnnie, adhered to the strict discipline their father, a parks policeman, administered following Mattie’s death and Ashe focused on school and athletics, picking up a tennis racket for the first time at age 7. His talent was apparent immediately and he was coached and mentored by Robert Walter Johnson at his tennis summer camp in Lynchburg, Virginia from age 10 through 17. In 1958, Ashe achieved the first of many “firsts” he would accomplish in his life by becoming the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships. He moved to St. Louis for his senior year of high school and attended Sumner High School, where he found better competition and helped Sumner win the U.S. Interscholastic tournament. He was the first African-American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis title, winning in 1960 and 1961, and accepted a scholarship to play tennis at UCLA. There, he practiced with the legendary tennis great Pancho Gonzales, his boyhood idol, who helped hone the serve-and-volley game that he would come to be known for. In 1963, he became the first African-American to be selected to the U.S. Davis Cup Team and in 1965 won and the singles, doubles and team NCAA championship for the Bruins. By the time he graduated from UCLA with a degree in business administration in 1966 he was considered the most promising player in the world.
Ashe remained an amateur after graduation in order to retain eligibility for Davis Cup play and reached the final of the Australian Open in 1966 and 1967, losing both times to Roy Emerson. He broke through in 1968, winning the inaugural U.S. Amateur Tennis Championships before becoming the first and only African-American to win the U.S. Open later that year. As an amateur, he could not accept the $ 14,000 first place prize money so it was given to runner-up Tom Okker. In December of 1968, he helped the U.S. defeat defending champion Australia in the Davis Cup to cap a season in which he won 10 of 22 tournaments with a 72-10 win-loss match record. In 1970, Ashe won his second Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, becoming the first non-Aussie to win that title since 1959. He reached the final of the Australian Open in 1971 but lost to Ken Roswall and did not return to a Grand Slam final until 1975. That season, he won eight singles tournaments, including a victory over Bjorn Borg in the Dallas WTC Finals in May. A few weeks later and just shy of his 32nd birthday, he put on the finest performance of his career against top seed and defending champion Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon singles final. Ashe, seeded sixth and winless against Connors in his career, played nearly flawless tennis and won his first title in nine visits to the All England Club. He remains the only black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon.
Mr. Ashe sustained a series of injuries in subsequent years and underwent heart surgery in 1979. He officially retired from tennis in 1980 with a career record of 818-260. He won 35 singles and 18 doubles titles during his career and was the Number One ranked player in the world in 1968. He played on four Davis Cup champion teams and played in seven Grand Slam finals, winning three of them. He is the only African-American to win a singles title at Wimbledon, the Australian Open or the U.S. Open. He received contaminated blood during a transfusion while undergoing heart surgery in 1983 and became infected with HIV. He died of AIDS-related pneumonia in New York in February of 1993. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985 and the main venue that hosts the U.S. Open is named Arthur Ashe Stadium. The ESPY Awards hands out the Arthur Ashe for Courage Award each year to a member of the sports world who best exhibits courage in the face of adversity and Mr. Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in four months after his passing in 1993.
On this date in 1968, Arthur Ashe beat Tom Okker to win the first U.S. Open of the Open Era.