On the 6th of February 1993, Arthur Ashe, one of the most talented tennis players of the '70s and an authentic hero of the African-American community in the United States, passed away at the age of 49. Throughout his life, this relentless activist consistently made use of his fame to help the noblest causes. Even if it meant sacrificing his sports career, which deserved a prize list even greater than three Grand Slam titles. A portrait…
20 years ago, Arthur Ashe - one of the most popular and respected figures in the world of tennis - passed away on February 6, 1993. At 49 years old, he succumbed to pneumonia contracted after his body had been weakened for a decade by AIDS. On that day and those that followed, America mourned not just an athlete, but a true hero. "When this is all over,” he said one day, “I do not want to be remembered as a tennis player, because it is not a sufficient contribution to society. " His request was rewarded since when Arthur Ashe is remembered today it is as much for his personality and his off-court battles as for his, not inconsequential, exploits with a racket.
Born in 1943 in Richmond, Virginia, little Arthur discovered tennis thanks to his father, a policeman in charge of monitoring the city's largest sports arena; a rather peculiar one since it was only for black people. Segregation was still in force and, in order to develop his early talents, Arthur Ashe was forced to leave - first for a high school in St. Louis, Missouri, then for the prestigious UCLA in California. It is only there that he first regularly got the chance to play against white people and compete in tournaments not restricted to coloured people. Throughout his life, Ashe would keep this ugly time in mind when he struggled to impose his presence as a black athlete in a sport at that time particularly conservative and resistant to the changing world.
His fight against apartheid
His achievements in college tennis did not go unnoticed and, in 1963, Arthur Ashe became the first black tennis player to join the U.S. Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team. It was the beginning of a love affair with this competition, that he won a total of four times as a player and twice as captain. In 1968, while still an amateur, he won the U.S. Open against the Dutchman Tom Okker. At 25 years old, not only the player gains influence, so does the man too… With the money from his first winner’s cheques, Ashe creates a national tennis league, open to all, that still exists today and from which the Williams sisters have particularly benefited. He is also part of the group of players behind the creation of the ATP, the current association of professional tennis players. It is also at this time that he takes on the cause with which he remains best associated: the fight against apartheid. Then one of the world's best players, having won a second Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open in 1970, Arthur Ashe is denied entry into a South African tournament, because of his skin color. A situation he does not accept lying down and which makes him one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement until the fall of the regime in 1991.
Along with his many political commitments, the player silenced the skeptics in 1975, when many begin to criticize his errors and his ways of managing his sporting career. Facing his seemingly-invincible compatriot, Jimmy Connors, in the Wimbledon final, he defies the odds and emerges victorious from a memorable meeting. "A good man became a great champion," said the press of the day, which emphasized beyond his attacking qualities, his tactical genius. This victory also helped to break down some of the persistent clichés of the time, including the idea that black athletes were making more use of their physique than of their intelligence to win. At Wimbledon, in the temple of world tennis, Arthur Ashe definitively became that day one of the most charismatic African-American heroes in history, following the tradition of athletes like Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the boxers Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.
The discoverer of Yannick Noah
Later, Ashe hit his highest world ranking - No. 2 in 1976 - but he had to prematurely end his career in 1980 due to heart problems. What do you think he did then? He embraced the cause of heart patients of course, and used his popularity to encourage young Americans to lead a healthy lifestyle! It was during a second operation on his heart in 1983 that the new-retiree received a blood transfusion infected with HIV. He only found out in 1988 and publicly revealed his condition shortly before his death. Arthur Ashe was not inactive during the last ten years of his life, quoting WEB du Bois, one of the greatest thinkers of Pan-Africanism, "Lord make us not great, but busy!" As a TV pundit, he witnessed the ascension of his protégé Yannick Noah, whom he had spotted in Yaoundé, Cameroon in 1971 and helped bring to Europe.
The man with the glasses was also invited to teach university courses on the theme of “The black athlete in contemporary society." Again, he didn't do things by half and used it to write a book on the subject, a tome of three volumes that is still used today. His last fight was against AIDS. A few months before his death, he was invited to the UN to present the Arthur Ashe Foundation, created in collaboration with Magic Johnson, another HIV-positive sports hero. "The good fight,” he used to say, “is the one that leads you to the end." Rarely have words and deeds have been so tightly-bound.
By Régis Delanoë