Remembering Arthur Ashe, the first African-American man to win Wimbledon, who died 20 years ago
Ashe said that the country would elect a black President someday, he just wouldn’t live long enough to see that. On the golf course in New Jersey I told him he was the one who should have grown up to be President.
By Mike Lupica
Arthur Ashe, who should be getting ready to turn 70 years old in July, who should have lived long enough to see Barack Obama, died 20 years ago today.
He died in the middle of a Saturday afternoon at the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center, died of AIDS contracted from a contaminated blood transfusion from a heart operation in the 1980s, died too soon after a life of grace and dignity and wisdom and courage. The irony of his death, then and now, is that it all started because of his heart.
I was at a function for Connecticut Special Olympics called “Night for Heroes” when I called home to check in with our baby-sitter and she told me — before cell phones — that the paper was looking for me, that they said it was important. I called our sports desk and it was important. They knew Ashe had been my friend, and wanted me to know that he was gone, at the age of 49.
I went back to my table and ripped off the back covers of the programs on our table and started to write a column in longhand, one I would eventually dictate over a pay phone, about more than 20 years of knowing Arthur Ashe, from the time he upset Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final of 1975. It was a year when Connors was supposed to be unbeatable, a year when he had looked even more intimidating on his way to the final than he had been when he’d rolled through the draw the year before, finally destroying Ken Rosewall.
But on this day, Ashe exposed a great weakness in Connors’ game, gave him soft stuff on short balls to the forehand, and played one of the great tactical matches in all of Wimbedon history. We looked up after two sets and it was 6-1, 6-1 for Arthur, on his way to winning in four.
And then this quiet, graceful man had a fist in the air, perhaps the most demonstrative thing he ever did on a tennis court. He was now the first African-American man to win Wimbledon the way he was the first African-American man to win this country’s national Open when he was still an amateur.
Now he was dead because of a blood transfusion before we knew enough about blood contaminated by the AIDS virus, all of it starting because he had an old man’s heart too young.
We were sitting at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle before he was going to play golf there one day, and I asked him if he ever asked himself, “Why me?”
“If you start asking that,” Ashe said, “when do you stop? If I asked why I had a bad heart, or why I got AIDS do I also have to ask why I won Wimbledon? Or why I’ve had this kind of life? When something bad happens, people have this way of forgetting their blessings. I don’t. I’ve had a wonderful life.”
To say that he was just a tennis player is like saying Jackie Robinson was just a baseball player. He grew up in Richmond, Va., and used to talk about how, when he was still playing baseball as a boy, he and his black friends would all run straight to second base on the first day of tryouts because they all wanted to wear No. 42 and be Jackie Robinson.
“We didn’t think we could play ball the way he could,” Ashe, who went to UCLA the same as Robinson did, said once. “But he made us believe we could make the country a better place.”
In another Black History Month in this country, remember Arthur Ashe today, who went to South Africa when other American sports stars, white and black, would not, and spoke out with eloquence against apartheid. When he was given Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year Award, he talked about one of his first trips to South Africa, and a small, young black boy following him around.
Ashe finally asked the child why he had been following him, and the child told Arthur Ashe he was the first free black man he’d ever seen with his own eyes.
Oh, he was proud of his tennis, too, loved the sport as much as anybody I ever knew, would have loved what we have seen from men’s tennis over the last decade, loved Federer and Nadal and Djokovic and the Williams sisters elevating the sport the way they have. He was our Davis Cup captain and a wonderful television commentator and tennis writer when he felt the urge.
“A nick here, a nick there, and pretty soon you’re bleeding to death,” is the way he once described John McEnroe’s game.
And, late in his life, he wrote the story of his life, “Days of Grace,” appropriately named, a book that should be required reading for students in this country, during Black History Month especially.
The last time I was with him was a round of golf we played over at Mountain Ridge Golf Club in New Jersey, both of us invited there by a mutual friend of ours, the television director Rob Cowan. Anybody who knew Arthur knows how much he loved golf, how hard he worked at it and studied it and practiced it, that one of his last sports goals was to get his handicap under 10.
He told us that day that the country would elect a black President someday, he just wouldn’t live long enough to see that. On the golf course in New Jersey I told him he was the one who should have grown up to be President.
“I’ve got no regrets,” he said. “I feel like I’ve left my mark.”
He was born the same year that Billie Jean King was. Somehow the two of them, Ashe from Richmond, the girl from Long Beach, came to tennis and from tennis and lived important American lives.
Arthur Ashe’s extraordinary life was cut short, much too short, 20 years ago today. Skinny tennis kid in glasses who ran out to second base and dreamed about being Jackie Robinson. About making his country better. And did.