arthur ashe: an appreciation

Every July and August, I get nostalgic for the tennis of yesteryear. And heroes. Arthur Ashe is one of those for me. The Wimbledon men’s singles final in 1975 in which he swiftly vanquishes Jimmy Connors is the stuff tennis dreams are made of. At the beginning of the third set (and after smoking Connors in the first two sets, 6-1, 6-1), Ashe eyes Connors squarely and with determination.Ashe

To watch Ashe compete is pretty breathtaking. He was a master tactician; he had fantastic skill at the net; and he knew how to uncork his opponent with a backhand slice or well-timed lob. And uncork Connors he did. A few years ago UK writer Paul Newman parsed the drama and context of this championship in an article for The Independent:

Before they contested the 1975 Wimbledon final, Connors had beaten Ashe in all three of their meetings. The tensions between the two men had been heightened earlier in the year. While the United States were losing to Mexico in a Davis Cup tie, the country’s best player, Connors, was in Las Vegas, where he won $100,000 by beating Rod Laver in a much-hyped exhibition match.

Ashe, a future Davis Cup captain, said that Connors was ‘seemingly unpatriotic’ in repeatedly refusing to play for the United States. Connors filed a libel suit, demanding millions in damages, which he dropped only after losing the Wimbledon final.

The 1975 Wimbledon men’s singles final was Ashe’s last Grand Slam, sadly. In 1979 he suffered two heart attacks and experienced surgeries over the following years. One of the surgeries exposed him to HIV. His illnesses and compromised immune system did not diminish his fiery capacity for advocating for civil rights, community health, and health equity. Just two months before he passed away in 1993, he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. What a legacy, what a lasting impact.