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Pinpoint backhands, blistering serves, and impressive aces filled tennis fans with excitement on Sept. 8, 1968. Arthur Ashe was competing in the final round of the inaugural U.S. Open. Then an amateur upstart, he had triumphed over the best professional players to reach that point. After almost three hours of back-and-forth momentum swings, he emerged as the champion. With that victory, Arthur Ashe crossed an important line. He became the first ever African-American male—among many tennis champions in the sport’s history—to win a Grand Slam event, breaking the color barrier in a sport dominated by white players. That day changed not only his life but also tennis as the world knew it. His legacy on and off the court made Arthur Ashe one of the most honored and beloved athletes of all time.

During the Diversity MBA National Conference, Bold Business exclusively interviewed D.A. Abrams, the USTA Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer on the lasting legacy of Arthur Ashe playing tennis.

Arthur Ashe Achievements as a Tennis Champion

Arthur Ashe’s calm and gracious demeanor was in stark contrast with his fierce athleticism. Those who watched Arthur Ashe playing tennis would likely remember him for his exquisite timing, great topspin backhand and hammering serve. He was one of the most notable tennis champions who embodied the highest qualities of sportsmanship.

Throughout his career, Arthur Ashe claimed 33 titles. Prior to his victory at the U.S. Open in 1968, he also won the United States Amateur Championships. He is the only tennis player in history to win the two championships in the same year. He then won the Australian Open two years later. In 1975, he became—and remains to this day—the only black male to ever claim a title at Wimbledon. That same year, Ashe took down Björn Borg in the season-ending World Championship Tennis Finals. As the first African-American ever selected by the Davis Cup team, Arthur Ashe won titles for the U.S.—both as a player and as a captain. These accomplishments cemented his name in the sport of tennis, leading to his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

D.A. Abrams Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer USTA feels that Arthur Ashe playing tennis changed his life
Through the actions of Arthur Ashe, it changed D.A. Abrams life and millions of others

Arthur Ashe Achievements are A Hard Road to Glory

Achieving such feats was not without difficulty. The title of Arthur Ashe’s three-volume book, “A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, sums up what his path to success was like. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia at a time when segregation and racial tensions were the norms.

The Bold Impact of Arthur Ashe on the USTA and the Sport of Tennis
Arthur Ashe Cartoon Caricature Depicting the Star Tennis Player

Arthur Ashe faced racism at every turn. He was denied entry to junior tournaments because of the color of his skin. Courts in his hometown had signs that read “Whites only”. He had to carry himself with utmost courtesy in almost every aspect of his career to avoid false accusations out of racism. In his memoir, Arthur Ashe wrote that having to live as a black man in America was the “heaviest burden” he had ever carried in his life. 

Becoming More than a Sports Hero – a True Bold Leader

To this day, sports fans are still amazed when they watch videos of Arthur Ashe playing tennis. But even more, people admire him for his work as a humanitarian. He used his celebrity-athlete status as a platform for speaking out on social injustice and discrimination. During a phone call with his brother, Johnnie Ashe, after his U.S. Open victory, the tennis star said, “Yeah, I’m a champion. Now people will listen to me.”

Arthur Ashe quote about life and legacy
Arthur Ashe Achievements on the court was not as great as what he gave off of it

Arthur Ashe campaigned against the apartheid regime in South Africa by using tennis to inspire social change. Throughout his life, he worked to help address issues of racism and poverty around the world. His grass-roots efforts still have echoes today in various initiatives of other tennis champions as well as athletes across different sports.

After learning he had AIDS due to a tainted blood transfusion following a heart operation, Arthur Ashe did everything he could to raise awareness about the disease. He formed the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and addressed the United Nations on World AIDS Day. The athlete spent the remainder of his life advocating for AIDS-related research and public education. Even after he passed away in 1993 at the age of 49, his initiatives continued to change the lives of many AIDS patients.

Leaving a Bold Impact in the World of Tennis

As one of the most charitable tennis champions, Arthur Ashe poured his time and energy into providing opportunities for the youth. As one of the founders of the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network, he helped inner-city kids build character through tennis and education. Majorly funded by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the program has since grown to more than 600 chapters, serving more than 250,000 children each year.

The success and achievements of Arthur Ashe signified that the sport of tennis, previously dominated by white players, was starting to cast off racial exclusivity. He ushered in countless possibilities for future black sports figures. Serena Williams, one of the most famous tennis champions today, considers Arthur Ashe as one of her biggest heroes. “I have an opportunity to be here because of him,” she said in the 2015 BBC documentary, “Arthur Ashe: More Than A Champion”. She expressed, “It motivated me, reading stories about how Arthur wasn’t allowed to play when he was young. Because of what he went through I have the opportunity to be the best that I can be.”

Arthur Ashe achievements were dependent on self-confidence
Self-Confidence was key to Arthur Ashe successes off and on the court

Arthur Ashe became a role model not only for black tennis players but also for athletes who want to be involved in important issues beyond their sports. He contributed to the worldwide popularity of tennis not only as a sport but also as a platform for social change.

The Legacy of Arthur Ashe Lives On Through the Arthur Ashe Award

Fifty years after that fateful day at the first U.S. Open, Arthur Ashe remains a strong force in tennis and the rest of the world. The USTA celebrated the 50th anniversary of his championship during the 2018 edition of the U.S. Open. A new logo was also unveiled for the biggest stadium in tennis—aptly named Arthur Ashe Stadium—after a man of epic proportions. Even the U.S. Military Academy honored Ashe last September, as the athlete also served in the Army for two years.

Arthur Ashe paved the way for significant changes in the history of sports. Moreover, he set an example of how we must strive to have a positive impact on the world. This legacy still lives on today through the non-profits he launched and the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. The recognition given out at the ESPY Awards recognizes individuals who “transcend sports” and has gone to Jim Valvano, Muhammad Ali, Bille Jean King, Pat Tillman, Nelson Mandela, and Pat Summit.

In his famous words, “From what we get, we can make a living. what we give, however, makes a life.”

Sources:

The Complicated Activism of Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe: remembering one of the sport’s greatest champions

Arthur Ashe always had the leadership to change the world, and his historic 1968 US Open title finally provided the platform

The Legacy Of Arthur Ashe

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