Sports has long proven to have the power to change the world, from Jesse Owens and Joe Louis’ crippling of the ludicrous concept of Aryan superiority to Arthur Ashe’s call to condemn and destroy apartheid.
Today we celebrate Arthur Ashe’s birthday in heaven. He would have been 78 years old today. The athlete, icon and civil rights and social activist passed away in 1993, but he was born on July 10, 1943.
Today’s best Black athletes ain’t having none of that “stick to sports” and “just shut up and dribble” nonsense. They’ve been spiritually mentored by the likes of Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and others, and understand the crucial juncture in which we now stand and the unique power of their voices and resources.
In a New York Times book review of Raymond Arsenault’s “Arthur Ashe: A Life”, American writer, music journalist, cultural critic, podcaster, and television personality Toure’ wrote, “Ashe belongs on the Mount Rushmore of elite athletes who changed America put him alongside Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Billie Jean King.”
“It’s inspiring to read about Ashe growing up to become a political figure on his own terms, every bit as political as Ali, even as he employed the measured tones of a diplomat rather than the bombastic tones of a revolutionary,” Toure’ wrote. “In many ways, Ashe, more than Ali, is the spiritual father of Colin Kaepernick, the seminal athlete-activist of today.
Kaepernick’s protest both his kneeling and his public persona sinc ebeing blackballed by the NFL has been calm and dignified in a way Ashe would have respected. Ashe is the kind of man we can hope our children grow up to be like worldly, smart, cool, thoughtful, politically engaged…”
Arthur Ashe proved that he was much more than a Black man that could play tennis. His conscience and activism impacted the world. And ultimately, despite the venomous poison of racism, history will ultimately absolve Kaepernick in the way that it did Ashe, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and so many others who stood on the side of what was certifiably and undeniably right.
Last Wimbledon in 1975
The great Arthur Ashe was the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open, but he was about so much more than his athletic achievements.
We can’t minimize his contributions being on par with the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Doug Williams, and the other trailblazers that kicked down doors to assert their standing alongside any other in their field.
Before he used his elevated platform to fight for societal change in South Africa — where the brutally racist apartheid regime refused to grant him a visa so he could compete in the country –he was quietly fighting for change in the game of tennis, using his racket, mind and physical gifts to destroy some long-erected barriers.
On July 5 in 1975, as the #6 seed and what was then-considered the advanced age of 31, he spanked Jimmy Connors in a huge upset to become the first black man to ever win the Wimbledon championship. Connors was considered indestructible at the time, having dominated the field en route to the title match. He was Wimbledon’s defending champion and the No. 1 player in the world who was dispatching opponents with uncommon sovereignty.
The year prior, Connors record was 99-4, making Jordan’s 1996 Chicago Bulls look like Elton Brand’s 2001 squad.
Well. not quite, but you get the picture I’m trying to paint.
Most people feared that Ashe would be embarrassed and destroyed. But armed with an outstanding game plan, he frustrated Connors, who preferred an aggressive, big-hitting game. Like Big Daddy Kane bragging that he could slice and dice a Fisher-Price MC that thought he was nice into Minute Rice, that’s exactly what Ashe did.
It is considered one of the most epochal events in tennis history. And the sub-text included the story line of Ashe being one of the game’s most respected, cerebral and thoughtful elder statesman, with Connors being the young, vulgar spoiled brat – like that kid you stare at wide-eyed in the supermarket after he yells, “Kiss my ass, mom!”
Not only did Ashe win, but he won convincingly, with style to spare. He rolled it softly and chipped it low to keep it away from the heavy-swinging Connors, running him from side to side, winning the first two sets astonishingly, 6-1, 6-1.
No other African-American has won the event since.
It was another in his string of firsts, having earlier become the first to ever win the U.S. Open seven years prior, as well as being the first to ever be selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team. Two years prior to his Wimbledon title, Ashe was one of the key figures in the ATP’s Wimbledon boycott, which shifted the game’s power base over to the players for the first time ever.
As The Independent’s tennis writer Paul Newman wrote, Ashe’s groundbreaking victory was, “…seen as a victory for Ashe’s patriotism over Connors pursuit of wealth, while on a political level it was viewed as a triumph for those seeking to build a unified structure that could benefit everyone in the new world of professional tennis over an individual who relished standing alone from the rest.”
Happy birthday Arthur Ashe. There’s still much work to be done and your legacy, principles and