“If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things that happened in my life, then I should say, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened.”  Arthur Ashe

December 1, 1975 – Grand Prix Masters Tennis – Stockholm, Sweden: The large crowd sat stunned. Romanian tennis player Ilie Nastase had yelled at his opponent, American Arthur Ashe. He had called Ashe a ‘black n—-’ for the second time in the match. Ashe, up two sets to one and well on his way to winning the match and aware that he could be disqualified, packed up his tennis rackets and walked off the court.

The referee disqualified him for leaving the court before the match was over. Then the ref turned to Nastase and disqualified him for his behavior. It wasn’t the first time Nastase had been warned about his antics. It was the first double disqualification in professional tennis history. “I was wrong for walking off the court,” the usually calm and in control Ashe said later, “but I wasn’t going to take that from anyone.”

Ashe grew up in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1950s and 60s. When he was five, his father became the manager at the city-owned Brook Field Park. The 18-acre segregated playground included ball fields, basketball and tennis courts. At age 7, young Ashe got his first tennis racket. He was a natural. Three years later, he met Dr. Walter Johnson, a physician with two decades of experience in coaching Black tennis stars, including tennis hall of famer Althea Gibson.

Under Johnson’s tutelage, Ashe improved quickly, though it was not until age 15 that he competed in his first integrated tennis tournament in Maryland. After winning two Junior National Tournaments, he left Richmond for St. Louis, Missouri, to play more competitive tennis his senior year in high school. He earned a scholarship to UCLA, where he won the NCAA singles championship in 1965. Ashe then served two years in the Army before turning professional.

It was difficult being a Black tennis player in a white sport. Ashe was often denied entry to clubs and tournaments. Johnson had taught him to return balls even if they were out of bounds because referees frequently made calls to favor White players. And Johnson taught the quiet, intelligent athlete to always keep his cool, regardless of the catcalls and racial slurs from opposing players and White fans.

Arthur Ashe became the only Black man to win the U.S. Open (1968), the Australia Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975) before heart problems forced his retirement. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.

He suffered his first heart attack in 1979 after holding a tennis clinic for underprivileged kids in New York. A few months later, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. In 1983, he had another heart attack, followed by double bypass surgery. During the operation, Ashe contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through a blood transfusion. Hoping to protect the privacy of his family, he kept the illness confidential until 1992.

Arthur Ashe’s final decade was his most influential and impactful as he used his platform to advocate for social justice and equality.  He protested discrimination in America and apartheid in South Africa. He became a fighter against AIDS, led a $5 million fund-raising campaign and lobbied for better education for Blacks and against poverty.

His quiet, gentle demeanor was reminiscent of South African leader Nelson Mandela. It was this approach that allowed Ashe to accomplish so much. In 1990, when Mandela was finally released as a political prisoner after 27 years, Arthur Ashe was the first person he asked to visit South Africa.

Ashe served as a columnist for the Washington Post, a TV tennis commentator, a participant in numerous civil rights projects and protests and authored a three-volume history of the Black athlete in America. He died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993 at age 49.

Arthur Ashe ranks eighth on the list of top American male tennis players. His tennis exploits don’t rival those of other great American tennis players, like Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but he was bigger than the game.

During a brutally cold period in February 1993, more than five thousand people, including Governor Douglas Wilder, waited in line to say goodbye to Arthur Ashe as he lay in state for five days at the Virginia Executive Mansion in Richmond. Six thousand attended his funeral at the Arthur Ashe Youth Center across town. Arthur Ashe left Richmond in 1963 because of racism. Three decades later, the city of Richmond welcomed him home.