WASHINGTON — It was on September 9, in 1968 that Virginia’s own Arthur Ashe won the US Open, becoming the first Black man to win a Major title. In doing so, he joined Althea Gibson, the first Black person to ever win a Major. She also won the Open, then called the US Championships, in 1957.
Born and raised in Richmond, Arthur started playing at 7 years old, encouraged by his father, who steered him into tennis after forbidding him from playing football, due to the fact the he was skinny. Which I can feel, I, too, suffer from the bird chest--there was no football for young Reese.
A talented youngster, Arthur caught the attention of Althea’s coach, Robert Walter Johnson, who, taking him under his wing, developed his game, but more importantly, instilled in him the drive and steel composure that became his trademark.
Growing up in a segregated society, it was this drive and composure that propelled him through the ranks, collecting wins and firsts. He was the first Black player to win a National Junior Indoor tennis title. He was the first Black player selected to the United States Davis Cup Team. He was the first Black male to win the US Amateur Championships, doing so a month before his US Open win, becoming the only player to have won both in the same year.
These firsts brought him fame and fortune. They also gave him a platform, which he chose to use to advance the causes of racial and social justice.
A naturally quiet man, he had never really spoken out, but seeing the struggles of the civil rights movement and following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he found his voice, dedicating it to the cause.
He spoke out against the lack of opportunity for the community in this country and became a fierce opponent of South Africa’s apartheid. He later expanded his advocacy to a host of causes, including gender equity and the fight against AIDS.
I wonder what he would think looking at the world of tennis today. He would see a record number of Black women competing in this year’s Open, including arguably the greatest player in history. He would see players using their platforms to advocate for change. He would hear players invoke his name and memory, while standing on a center court named after him. Flowers blooming on the bush he and Althea planted.
I hope he would proud. In fact, I think he would be.