Remembering a Pioneer in Fields Far Beyond His Sport

By DONALD L. DELL, for the New York Times Straight Sets Blog
 
Twenty years ago, on Feb. 6, 1993, Arthur Ashe died of complications from AIDS at age 49. He was my best friend and client for 23 years, and his death continues to touch me, almost daily.
 
I am confident that those of us who knew him best can reflect on his passing and can smile, rather than revisit the depths of despair we knew in 1993. We can smile because we can take solace in his immense legacy and the memories of the grace, dignity and equanimity with which he bore his burdens and his triumphs.
 
Every summer at the United States Open, we are reminded of what he meant to tennis. In 1997, the United States Tennis Association paid Arthur the rare tribute of naming the main stadium at the National Tennis Center after him. And with the celebration each year of the Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the Open, it is hoped that the memory of his life and personality will pass down to younger generations.
 
Who was the Arthur Ashe we are remembering today?
 
He was, of course, one of the best tennis players this country has produced, winning Wimbledon, the United States Open and the Davis Cup. I met him in the mid-1960s on the men’s tournament circuit when he was a junior player. He was not outspoken off the court, but he was a risk taker on it. Despite his tall and lanky frame, he had an imposing game, including a ferocious first serve and a backhand he could hit six or seven ways. He had lightning-quick reflexes, went for big winners and trusted his guile.
 
Arthur was, as Bud Collins once wrote, "the thinking man’s tennis player." His strategic planning earned him perhaps his greatest title, when he beat Jimmy Connors as a 16-1 underdog in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
 
Being reasonable and thoughtful was the essence of his character, as well as an insatiable curiosity. Elite, professional athletes are often singularly focused individuals. Such concentration and focus is almost a prerequisite for becoming a champion. Arthur, by contrast, was interested in everything: politics, art, literature, music, social causes and the power of language. He often quipped he was a "citizen of the world."
 
But he started in Richmond, Va., where he struggled to find adequate tennis facilities in segregated parks. He went to Lynchburg, two hours away, to perfect his tennis craft in the backyard of Dr. Robert W. Johnson, an African-American coach who also mentored Althea Gibson.
 
Arthur once said the toughest obstacle he faced was being born black in America. His experience with racism moved him to learn more about apartheid. He visited South Africa in 1973 and played in the national championships. His appearance forced the government to integrate the stands at Ellis Park, where the championships were played. Arthur believed it would help young blacks who attended the matches or many clinics he conducted to see a free black man winning matches against white players.
 
The impact of his trip and his later visit in 1974 to meet Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island, cannot be overestimated. After being released from prison, he was asked if there was anyone from the United States he would like to see. He said, "How about Arthur Ashe?"
 
After announcing in 1992 that he had AIDS, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion, Arthur turned his energy to helping numerous AIDS groups, publicizing their fight against discrimination and lack of funding. He established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS shortly before his death.
 
In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 1, 1992, two months before he died, Arthur spoke out strongly about obtaining necessary funding to fight AIDS globally, saying, "We want to be able to look back and say that we did all that we could, when we had to do it and with all the available resources."
 
People often ask me what Arthur was like in private. Was he really that good? My answer is yes — more than anyone I’ve known, Arthur walked the walk. The private man was sincere and loyal, with a quiet sense of humor. His quiet philosophy often hid a raging noble soul.
 
Twenty years after his death, I think of him and smile because there is so much today he would smile about:
 
• Diversity in the upper ranks of the tennis world, particularly among American women, including the Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend.
 
• An African-American president.
 
• A thriving democracy in South Africa.
 
• A worldwide coalition of governments and researchers working to enable people to live longer with AIDS.
 
All of that makes me smile, too, through the enduring sorrow at the premature loss of such a man.
 
Donald L. Dell, who was Arthur Ashe’s lawyer and manager for 23 years, was the United States Davis Cup captain in 1968-69 when Ashe, Stan Smith, Bobby Lutz and Charlie Pasarell won the cup. He is the group president of Lagardère-Unlimited.
 

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