Commentator Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond's sports history. In this segment, he recalls the life and career of tennis great Arthur Ashe.
Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. (July 10, 1943 - February 6, 1993) was a professional tennis player, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. During his career, he won three Grand Slam titles, putting him among the best ever from the U.S. Ashe, an African American, is also remembered for his efforts to further social causes.
After his retirement, Ashe took on many new tasks, including founding the National Junior Tennis League, and serving as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. He was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985. He also founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.
Commentator Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond’s sports history, and, Brooks, this being Black History Month, it seems an appropriate time to review the life and career of one of Richmond’s most famous sons, Arthur Ashe.
Smith: He was a black superstar, and, more importantly, an American superstar. Amassed an amazing record both on and off the tennis court. You know, Arthur Ashe was born here in Richmond back in 1943, and he connected to tennis when his father took a job at the Brookfield Park, which was a blacks only recreational area that had tennis courts. And he started playing when he was four. The family lived in a house located within the park. And sadly, when Arthur was just six years old, turning seven, his mother passed away. And this was a pivotal point in his life. That same year he met a fellow named Ronald Charity, who was a Virginia Union University student, also a national tennis star. Ronald took him under his wing and gave him some of the fundamentals of tennis, taught him for three years actually before turning the reins over to a fellow I confess I didn’t know much about until researching for this discussion: the great Dr. Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, actually known as Dr. J, who was a practicing medical doctor but also an avid tennis player and coach and mentor. In addition to mentoring Arthur Ashe, he mentored Althea Gibson, who was a phenomenal women’s tennis player, won the French Open in ’56 and both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in successive years, 1957-1958.
And, incredibly perhaps to today’s younger generation, when Arthur Ashe was growing up in Richmond it was the era of racial segregation of course and he was not allowed to play on many of the city’s tennis courts, including the ones at Byrd Park.
Smith: Very difficult stories to revisit now and in fact it was the atmosphere here that led Dr. Davis suggest that Arthur finish high school in St. Louis. Then he went on to college in California before of course hitting center court as a major tennis star.
There is so much we could say and time is limited, so why don’t you just quickly recap some of his accomplishments on the tennis court for those who may need reminding.
Smith: Well, pretty amazing. He won three career grand slam singles titles, the first U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975, against heavily-favored Jimmy Connors. It’s fun to reflect on the newspaper headlines following his Wimbledon win. They were dubbed “King Arthur.” By the time he retired in 1980 he had a record of 818 wins and 51 titles under his belt.
And he was so much more than a great athlete, he had so many other interests and areas of accomplishment. Tell us about some of those.
Smith: I can’t help but think that this was a very complicated man of principle. He was a historian and humanitarian, obviously a sports legend and world champion. His career was cut short by a heart attack in 1979. He was forced to undergo bypass surgery a second time in 1983, received tainted blood transfusion and contracted HIV-AIDS. But in the time off the court since his untimely retirement he tackled all number of larger world issues: apartheid, urban health care, human rights in Haiti, HIV-AIDS. He actually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, the year he died. He also wrote nine books, including a memoir and what many consider to be the authoritative three-volume set on the history of black Americans in sports.
That was called, Road to Glory, was it?
Smith: That’s right.
And of course he died tragically and prematurely.
Smith: At the age of 49, if you can believe it. There were two things he left behind unfinished: one was a dream of building a national African-American Hall of Fame right here in Richmond, something that fell by the wayside but maybe one day may return to favor. And, as I was reading his memoir over the weekend, I was taken by one passage. This was a dream he had and his last wish. Let me just read it to you listeners out there: “My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity. My humanity gives the greatest flight to the full range of my possibilities. If I had one last wish, I would ask that all Americans could see themselves that way, past the barbed wire fences of race and color.”
Thanks to commentator Brooks Smith, talking today about Arthur Ashe.