As we face into this year’s US Open, it is worth commemorating the very first winner of the men’s singles there, Arthur Ashe. Very few players can be said to have made such a contribution to the sport as Ashe.
He was an inspirational figure through his achievements and the example he set both on and off the court, particularly for black players for whom he was a role model. He won three Grand Slam singles titles (the Australian, Wimbledon and the US Open) as well as the doubles at the French and the Australian. His record as a member of the US Davis Cup team, as player and non-playing captain was outstanding.
He made huge efforts to expand the outreach of the game of tennis both in the US and nationally, by bringing the sport closer to youth in less advantaged communities. In the latter period of his life during which his health deteriorated dramatically, he courageously went public about his health problems and sought to use the opportunity for the future benefit and education of others.
In recognition of these achievements, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, only five years after his official retirement. His home town of Richmond, Virginia and his former ‘alma mater’, UCLA have both commemorated him with buildings in his honour. Perhaps, his greatest ‘crowning glory’, however, is the honour of having his name given to the main show court at Flushing Meadows, a cauldron of intensity with a capacity of 23,000. Given the long roll call of famous players in the history of the game, that honour is a measure of the level of esteem in which he was universally held. It is a fitting honour for an individual who displayed such great determination, courage, talent and selflessness throughout his life.
In winning the 1968 US Open, Ashe was the first black man to have done so and it must be remembered, in a period when the US was only beginning to come to terms seriously with racial equality issues. This makes his achievement in 1968 even more momentous. In the first year of ‘open tennis’, it seems fitting that the new ‘openness’ also extended to having the first US Open won by a black player.
Before his 1968 win, Ashe had been a major player in the amateur game since the early part of that decade. In 1963 at 19 years of age, he made his first appearance as a member of the US Davis Cup team. During his 15-year Davis Cup career (1963-1978), he played singles on 32 occasions and won 27 – a memorable record. His team mates during that period included such luminaries as: Stan Smith, Bob Lutz, Charlie Passarel, Clark Graebner and Cliff Richey, as well as the many he players oversaw as team captain.
It is worth looking at Ashe’s passage to the 1968 title to gauge the kind of talent he had to beat. That year, the Open was still being played at the West Side Club at Forest Hills and on grass (Roland Garros was the only Grand Slam in those years not to be played on grass). This was the first year in which professionals had returned to the Grand Slams and players like Ashe were now facing seasoned talents of the calibre of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales. On his way to the final, Ashe beat former US star, Frank Parker, Roy Emerson, Cliff Drysdale, Clark Graebner and in the final, Dutchman, Tom Okker – a formidable tally in a year when most of the top seeds fell relatively early on. Without diminishing in any way the merit of his victory, Ashe, seeded no.5, managed to avoid the top four seeds, Laver, Roche, Rosewall and Newcombe on his way to the title. It was an outstanding victory for someone who fought his way from humble beginnings to the very top of the game and won in the company of the best professionals in the world. Of interest to British fans, was another surprise winner at the Open that year, a young Virginia Wade who seeded No.6, beat Billie-Jean King in straight sets in that year’s final – clearly a year for the ‘giant-killers’.
As well as his historic win in 1968, Ashe also added to his Grand Slam tally by winning an Australian Open in 1970 beating Australian, Dick Crealy in the final and winning the Wimbledon title in 1975. That Wimbledon win was against Jimmy Connors in the final, Connors coming into the match heavy favourite on the back of his victory against Ken Rosewall in the previous year’s final. Ashe’s two doubles Grand Slams were won at Roland Garros in 1971, partnered by Marty Riessen and at the Australian in 1977 partnered by Tony Roche.
With his permanent memorial at Flushing Meadows, Ashe has now become almost synonymous with American tennis. His life and career are a worthy example to up and coming young tennis players and to the African-American community, many of whom have already excelled as a result of his legacy. It is fitting to pay tribute to such a talent and ambassador of the game who, during a curtailed but fulfilling life, managed to win the US Open Men’s Singles titles all those 45 years ago.