by Misaki Toya
Many “tennis firsts” were served up and chronicled through most of Arthur Ashe’s life. In tennis, the biggest tournaments are the four major tennis tournaments, U.S. Open, Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. Especially, Wimbledon has the oldest history and it created a belief that tennis was a sport that was played by whites who wore white clothes. However, in 1975, Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win Wimbledon and he changed that thinking. Arthur Ashe fought racism in tennis by breaking the color barrier and giving American and African American children an opportunity to play tennis by founding programs.
Arthur Ashe was born in 1943 in the Southern city of Richmond, Virginia. His parents were Mattie Cordell Cunning Ashe and Arthur Ashe Sr. In those days, black people were discriminated against, so he grew up under poor conditions and he went to a school for black people only. However, fortunately, his father became a caretaker of a public play area for black people called Brook Field. Therefore, he could use the tennis court in the park and he was devoted to tennis. He became good at tennis but he could not take part in the Junior Tennis Tournaments because of racial discrimination. When he was ten years old, he met Doctor Johnson who established a tennis camp for black children. Doctor Johnson helped him greatly with studying and tennis. By 1960, he had won the National Junior Indoor Championship and he was admitted to California University. In 1963, he became the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team. After he graduated the University, he became a professional tennis player. In 1968, he won the U.S. Open and he became the first African American man to win it. Shortly after that, he won the Australian Open and the Wimbledon and he was named the number one tennis player in the world two times. After he retired from professional tennis, he founded the National Junior Tennis League and he was elected to the International Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1993, he died because of the disease AIDS. He was 49 years old.
By breaking the color barrier, Arthur Ashe opened the door for other black tennis players. In 1963, he became the first African American to be elected to the United States Davis Cup team which was the top of international tennis team. In 1968, he became the first African American to win the U.S. Open. In addition, in 1975, he became the first African American to win Wimbledon. Therefore, he broke the color barrier in the major games in U.S. one after another. After he became a best tennis player, he faced difficulties because of his skin color. In 1969, he applied for a visa to play in the South African Open as one of the best players in the world. However, he was denied that opportunity because of the color of his skin. He called for the expulsion of South Africa from Davis Cup play and the tennis tour due to their oppressive form of government. Many individuals and organizations throughout the world supported this call for expulsion. In effect his objection to United States raised awareness around the world about apartheid which was the separation of black people by the law in South Africa. Thought his efforts, black people in South Africa began to change in their country. Finally, he received his visa and he became the first black player to play in the South African Open in 1973.
After he became a famous tennis player, he still experienced racial segregation. In 1975, Arthur Ashe played against Ilie Nastase who was the second ranked player in the world in the Masters Tennis games in Sweden. During the game Nastase was out of control and he called Ashe racist names. Therefore, Ashe walked off the tennis court although it meant he defaulted the game. After the game, in an interview, he said, “I’ve had enough. I’m at the point where I’m afraid I’ll lose control. I’d rather lose that than my self-respect.” This comment changed the Masters committee. If the Masters committee gave the game to Nastase, they would be supporting his action, so they changed the decision. The new decision of the Masters committee was that Nastase must lose the game. Through this game, it appeared that the tennis was changing into a sport that both black and white people had an equal right to play.
Arthur Ashe gave American and African American children an opportunity to play tennis. He founded Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education in 1952. AAYTE annually provides qualified instructors, equipment and positive opportunities to more than 8,500 children, and the children can participate in the AAYTE at little or no cost. Through playing tennis, the children can become positive, build confidence, and provide a framework of personal discipline. In addition, Arthur Ashe went to South Africa to bring hope. He went to South Africa many times and he showed the hope to oppressed children because he was a successful black man. Besides, he established the Black Tennis Foundation to make the game accessible to every black child in South Africa. Black Tennis Foundation helps South African children to play tennis by borrowing tennis racquets free and granting travel and tournament fees. In addition, he co-founded National Junior Tennis League in 1969. It also held during summer, and a cost to participate in this program is low or free. Besides, children can learn not only tennis but also education, so they can keep safe, healthy, and strong. Ashe said “Our idea is to use tennis as a way to gain and hold the attention of young people in the inner cities and other poor environments so that we can teach them about matters more important than tennis….Through tennis, lives can be changed and spirits reclaimed.”
Arthur Ashe fought racism in tennis by breaking the color barrier and giving youth an opportunity to play tennis. He became a first African American to win the U.S. Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon and he opened the door for other black tennis players. In addition, he did not receive his visa for South Africa Open, so he began to raise awareness around the world about apartheid and finally, he became the first African American who played in South Africa Open. In 1975, he proved that the tennis was changing into a sport that both black and white people had an equal right to play. In addition, he gave American and African American children an opportunity to play tennis by founding Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education, the Black Tennis Foundation, and National Junior Tennis League. As you can see, he fought racism in tennis when he was alive, and he is still having an impact. Through his movement in tennis, many people changed their thinking for tennis and African American. Through such accomplishments, the U.S. Tennis Association’s (USTA) board of directors voted unanimously to name new stadium in honor of Arthur Ashe. In 1997, Arthur Ashe Stadium opened and it is used as a center court of U.S. open every years. In addition, Arthur Ashe Kids Day which gives an opportunity to watch and play tennis for children also opens every year in Arthur Ashe Stadium. In 1985, Ashe was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Therefore, the name Arthur Ashe is remembered as one of the greatest African American tennis players who fought and broke the color barrier in many people’s minds.
Misaki Toya is a second-year student in the Department of British and American Cultural Studies.