Arthur Ashe: U.S. sport's greatest black icon?

Story highlights

  • Arthur Ashe won three grand slam titles
  • First African American to achieve feat of winning a slam
  • Died aged 49 in 1993 of AIDS related illness from an infected blood transfusion
  • Stadium court at Flushing Meadows named in his honor

Tennis hero, inspiring role model for African Americans, social activist and high-profile campaigner for the HIV and AIDS communities, Arthur Ashe died in 1993, but it is a measure of his influence that 20 years on his legacy burns as brightly as ever.

The main stadium court at Flushing Meadows, where the U.S. Open is staged, is named in his honor, a striking statue of Ashe adorns the grounds, while the Arthur Ashe Kids' Day is a glittering annual bash that kick starts the fortnight for the final grand slam of the season. Michelle Obama was the guest of honor this year.

His widow Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe has made it her life's work to ensure her late husband's memory is preserved for generations and the presidential endorsement is the icing on the cake.

"It makes me very proud that Arthur has his name raised up for kids who didn't have a clue who he is," she told CNN's Open Court program.

"It was such a great honor. I'm born and raised on the south side of Chicago, as is Mrs Obama, so to be sitting here next to her with her daughters was just great fun.

"And that she's so supportive of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center and so supportive of Arthur's legacy.

    Just Watched

    King still fights for tennis equality

King still fights for tennis equality 05:49

    Just Watched

    Secret to beating tennis' big four

Secret to beating tennis' big four 05:40

    Just Watched

    Tennis baby takes Internet by storm

Tennis baby takes Internet by storm 05:23

    Just Watched

    'Golden Bear' on tennis love

'Golden Bear' on tennis love 03:10

"I don't think we could have asked for a better situation that day, it was just wonderful."

    Read: Pat Cash: Men's tennis is boring

    Moutoussamy Ashe was sharing her experiences with former American Davis Cup star James Blake, who has recently retired from the ATP Tour.

    Blake told her that Ashe has been his idol and inspiration growing up.

    "Being an African American playing tennis, his impact on me was great and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, being someone that went to college and was educated and had such a great influence on the world," he said.

    The impact that Blake talks about went far beyond the narrow confines of professional sport.

    Ashe once famously said "I don't want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments" and Moutoussamy Ashe has done her level best to promote his wish.

    "The game of tennis really just gave him a platform to speak about the issues that he cared so much about," she said.

    "I think he was a role model for a whole lot of kids which is why his legacy is so important to promote today.

    "We don't want a whole generation of kids today and generations to come to not know that he was more than a tennis player."

    Read: Nadal admits 'I had doubts' before U.S. Open triumph

    Born in 1943, Ashe was brought up in the segregated South in Richmond, Virginia and first tested his tennis skills on a blacks only playground in the city.

      Just Watched

      Murray inspired by friend's cancer fight

    Murray inspired by friend's cancer fight 05:01

      Just Watched

      Wimbledon's wild card returns home

    Wimbledon's wild card returns home 03:21

      Just Watched

      The Wimbledon greats

    The Wimbledon greats 06:14

    He developed his talent in high school and earned a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963, that year becoming the first African American to represent the United States in the Davis Cup.

    A member of the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), Ashe was eventually required to do military service and spent three years in the United States Military Academy at West Point, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.

    Ashe was still a serving officer when he won his first grand slam title at the 1968 U.S. Open, the first of the Open Era when professionals were also allowed to compete.

    "He wasn't just the first African American male to win the U.S. Open but he actually was the first American period to win the U.S. Open because the U.S. Open didn't begin until 1968," Moutoussamy Ashe emphasizes.

    Read: When should Federer quit tennis

    Ashe was discharged from the Army in 1969 and after winning his second grand slam crown at the 1970 Australian Open turned professional.

    A prominent supporter of the American civil rights movement, Ashe's political principles were tested when he was denied a visa by the apartheid government of South Africa to compete in their national open later that year.

    Ashe campaigned for South Africa to be excluded from the International Tennis Federation but although his demands were not met, he was eventually allowed a visa to compete in the 1973 South African Open, the first black male to do so.

    Ashe continued to speak out against the apartheid regime and after Nelson Mandela was released having served 27 years in prison, the tennis star returned to South Africa in 1991 as a member of a 31-strong delegation to observe the profound political changes in the country.

    He met Mandela several times and modestly observed: "Compared to Mandela's sacrifice, my own life has been one almost of self-indulgence. When I think of him, my own political efforts seem puny."

      Just Watched

      Pat Cash's Wimbledon tour

    Pat Cash's Wimbledon tour 02:24

      Just Watched

      The first diva of women's tennis

    The first diva of women's tennis 02:34

      Just Watched

      Chris Evert: Grooming future champions

    Chris Evert: Grooming future champions 04:22

    But others would disagree. Andrew Young, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, once famously said of Ashe: "He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity."

    Young, a pastor turned leading politician, presided over Ashe's wedding to Jeanne in 1977 after they had met at a charity event just six months previously where Moutoussamy Ashe was attending as a working photographer.

    Ashe was by then a three-time grand slam singles champion having shocked top seed Jimmy Connors in a epic 1975 Wimbledon final, but it was to prove his last as injury and eventual illness took their toll.

    The world was shocked in 1979 when the super-fit Ashe suffered a heart attack and underwent a bypass operation.

    He was set to return to the tennis tour when further complications arose and he was forced to announce his retirement, doing it in typically fastidious fashion.

    "He had about 30 letters that he had written individually to people, contracts that he had, promises and commitments he had to people, he just wrote them personally and said 'I'm retiring and I want you to be the first to know,'" recalled Moutoussamy Ashe.

    Read: U.S. Open champion Serena Williams 'having fun' after 11 months of 'hell'

    In retirement, he took over as captain of the United States Davis Cup team, but in 1983 he had to undergo a second round of heart surgery in New York.

    It was during his operation that Ashe is believed to have contracted the HIV virus from infected blood transfusions.

    He learned of the diagnosis in 1988 after another health scare, but for the sake of their adopted two-year old daughter Camera, Ashe and his wife kept the illness private.

    Only in 1992 was he forced to go public and true to his ideals began campaigning to debunk myths about AIDS and the way it is contracted.

      Just Watched

      Tipsarevic's clay court master class

    Tipsarevic's clay court master class 05:03

      Just Watched

      Tommy Haas: My daughter motivates me

    Tommy Haas: My daughter motivates me 02:26

    He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids to build on the work of an institute he had set up to promote public health.

    Ashe completed his memoir Days of Grace, finished shortly before his death on February 6, 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

    For Blake the book was an inspiration. "As soon as I read Days of Grace it has always been my answer to what's your favorite book of all time," he told Moutoussamy Ashe.

    Young officiated at Ashe's funeral in Richmond, which was attended by thousands of mourners. He was buried alongside his mother, Mattie, who died in 1950 when he was just six years of age.

    Later in the year that he died, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

    It was the first of a string of high profile honors in recognition of a truly remarkable man, but for his widow, who has carried his torch now for so many years, it is his impact on communities and the younger generation which is so important.

    "I think if Arthur were here today, he would promote tennis on a grass roots level, drawing that metaphor that tennis not just a sport but more importantly a profession that might be able to get you a college scholarship to get you through school," she said.

    Others like Blake and Mal Washington followed in Ashe's footsteps on the male side of the men's game, but Moutoussamy Ashe is equally delighted by the impact the Williams' sisters have had on African American sport.

    "Venus and Serena, I'm so proud of what they are both doing. Venus has her challenges yet she's moving her life forward and still stays very involved in the game of tennis whenever she can.

    "Serena has been I think on top form, not just in tennis but as a person during this particular U.S. Open," she added, reflecting on the World No.1's 17th grand slam crown.

    Read: Can Serena Williams become the greatest?

    Moutoussamy Ashe is hoping the Arthur Ashe Learning Center, which contains a wealth of her own photographs and memorabilia collected over his life, can find a permanent home.

    "It's really important that not just today's generation but generations to come understand him as more than just an athlete, as more than just a patient, as more than just a student and a coach.

    "That they'll understand the importance of being a well-rounded human being, that you might not be a great champion but if you're a well-rounded human being then you can do just about anything to succeed in life."

    Ashe himself is the perfect example of that, battling his modest background and an undercurrent of prejudice to achieve the highest honor that can be bestowed on an individual in the United States.

    "Racism is not an excuse to not do the best you can," Ashe said and he stands eloquent testimony to the truth of his words.


      • Rafael Nadal of Spain watches the ball in his match against Martin Klizan of Slovakia during during day seven of the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 3, 2014 in Beijing, China.

        Rafael Nadal's body might be giving him a few problems, but his mind remains as strong as ever. Will the Spaniard add to his haul of 14 grand slam titles?
      • LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17: Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and his long time girlfriend Kim Sears arrive at Buckingham Palace on October 17, in London, England. Murray will become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and receive his medal from the Duke of Cambridge. (Photo by John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

        The Scot has served up a few changes to his support team in 2014 but there's one person who isn't going anywhere -- his new fiancée Kim Sears.
      • Despite being forced to retire at the age of 24 due to health problems, Lacoste remained in the game and went on start the "Lacoste" brand in 1933, which specialised in tennis products. The inspiration for the company's logo came from his nickname as a player, "le crocodile."

        His distinctive crocodile logo is seen on clothing all over the world, but Rene Lacoste also left a lasting legacy in the development of tennis.
      • Serena Williams of the US holds the US Open trophy after defeating Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during their US Open 2014 women's singles finals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Center September 7, 2014 in New York. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

        Serena Williams is without peer in the modern women's game and now she is on a par with two American tennis legends from the past.
      • American tennis player and golfer Althea Gibson (right) receives a kiss from compatriot Darlene Hard, whom she beat in two sets to become the first black woman to win the Women's Singles Finals at Wimbledon.

        Over the course of her remarkable life, Althea Gibson was many things to many people -- but it was tennis where she really left her mark.
      • "I didn't cry once when I practiced in front of the mirror," says Martin Emmrich. But the nerves kicked in when he got down on one knee on court.
      • LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 03: Tennis / Frauen: Wimbledon 2004, London; Finale; Siegerin Maria SHARAPOVA / RUS 03.07.04. (Photo by Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images)

        It's 10 years since a teenage Maria Sharapova became the darling of Wimbledon's hallowed Center Court, launching herself as a star.
      • Five-time grand slam champion Martina Hingis has followed her mom into a coaching role, setting up a new tennis academy in Barcelona, Spain.