In our semi-regular column “They Reminisce”, we take a quick look back at some of the more memorable and lasting moments in sports and entertainment.
The great Arthur Ashe was about so much more than his athletic achievements. And yet, 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 refuse 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 this day 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.
His performance was a profile in courage, will, and elevated thought and preparedness that still serves as a message to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the task ahead. The message remains simple: embrace the challenge, fear not, what others see as impossible is always possible.
It was a brilliant tactical triumph. But with Ashe, everything he did, and would go on to do, had a much bigger significance.
As The Independent’s tennis writer Paul Newman wrote, Ashe’s groundbreaking victory was, “…seen as a victory for Ashes 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.”
Wimbledon in 1975 was Arthur Ashes last appearance in a Grand Slam final.