Arthur Ashe becomes first African-American male tennis player ranked No. 1 in the U.S. ‘He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity.’
On Dec. 12, 1968, Arthur Ashe became the first black male player to be ranked No. 1 by the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
That year, Ashe was the first black player to represent the United States in the Davis Cup and helped lead the team to the title with a dominant 4-1 victory over Australia, which ended the United States’ five-year losing streak.
More success followed the 25-year-old as he won the inaugural U.S. Open and became the first black man to win a Grand Slam. The victory also made Ashe the first American to win at Forest Hills since 1955, when Tony Trabert won the championship.
“Nobody can imagine, unless they’ve been through it, what agony you face in a close, five-set match, especially in scorching weather,” Ashe said in an ESPN.com article. “Fifth sets of tennis matches separate the great from the good.”
He finished the year winning 10 of 22 tournaments he played and with a 72-10 match record. In a sport where players traditionally wore white for their matches, Ashe broke down barriers weeks before the U.S. Open in Boston by wearing a yellow shirt in the semifinals of an amateurs-only U.S. Nationals tournament near Boston.
But Ashe wasn’t the only black athlete creating waves in the sports world. That same year, 1968, USA track team members John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists, giving a “black power” salute, at the Mexico City Olympic Games to bring awareness of racial inequality in the United States.
Ashe remains the first and only African-American tennis player to win the men’s singles champion at the U.S. Open, Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975).
“He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity,” said Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a friend.
Said HBO’s Bryant Gumbel during a special on Ashe: “He was an ambassador of what was right. He was an ambassador of dignity. He was an ambassador of class.”
Born in 1943, Ashe was raised in segregated Richmond, Virginia, by his father after his mother died when Ashe was 6.
Eleven years after Ashe was born, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, and Ashe rejoiced, believing he’d have access to the same public recreational facilities as white kids. But because the court said nothing about the integration of athletic properties, segregation continued to thrive there.
That didn’t stop Ashe, as he received help and training from a wealthy black doctor out of Lynchburg, Virginia, to hone his skills. In 1962, he won the National Junior Indoor Championship as the fifth-ranked player in the country. This championship helped him land a full-time scholarship to UCLA, which ultimately allowed him to compete in the Davis Cup.
At 36, Ashe suffered a serious heart attack that required him to undergo quadruple bypass surgery and later on, a corrective operation.
In 1988, Ashe was diagnosed HIV-positive — the result of a blood transfusions from his second operation. This was kept private between Ashe and his wife until Ashe found out that USA Today was about to break the story in 1992.
Ashe then called a news conference and revealed to the world that he had AIDS. Ashe began to discuss his daughter finding out about his condition from someone outside of her family, and he broke down. The next year, Ashe died at the age of 49.
“I have good days and bad days,” Ashe said in a New York Times article. “My ratio of good days to bad days is about six to one. I don’t think anybody in my stage of this would be able to go through with no bad days. But I didn’t want to go public now because I am not sick.”