40 Years Ago: Gentleman Rebel
It's 1973 week at TENNIS.com. Each day I’m recounting an important event from that revolutionary year in tennis, and in American life. Yesterday it was the ATP’s Wimbledon boycott, in which Arthur Ashe was a key participant. Today it’s Ashe’s trip later that year to play in apartheid South Africa. (If you have a sense of déjà vu as you read, it's probably because I told this tale, in a slightly different way, last year.)
When Arthur Ashe heard the maid at the mansion he was visiting in Johannesburg say those two words to him, he stopped in his tracks: “For the love of God,” he thought.
It was November 1973, and Ashe was fulfilling a long-held dream by traveling to South Africa to become the first black man to play in that country’s national tennis tournament. Why would an African-American want to visit the apartheid state? It was two months after the Battle of the Sexes in Houston, and he was following in the footsteps of his friend Billie Jean King by trying to use tennis to inspire social change. King and Ashe were born five months apart in 1943, and their lives had been upended by the same two revolutions: The 1960s, and Open tennis. They believed the world could be changed because they had seen their own worlds change so drastically.
But where King was confrontational, Ashe was cool—a gentleman rebel from Virginia. Black political groups in the U.S. tried to persuade him not to make the trip to South Africa; they believed that the government was using Ashe to make it look humane and reasonable. Ashe, by contrast, believed that the sight of a free black man competing with whites, and beating them, would offer hope. It would also expose the hypocrisy of the regime: Why, a black South African might wonder while watching Ashe play, am I not good enough to be allowed to do the same thing? If the Wimbledon boycott was the tennis equivalent of Nixon ending the military draft in 1973, Ashe’s South African tour was analogous to Tricky Dick’s boundary-breaking trip to communist China the previous year. Except, of course, for the small detail that Arthur Ashe was nothing like Richard Nixon. Ashe took everything in while he was there; in his 1973 tour diary, Portrait in Motion, with Frank DeFord, he recounted his experiences in some of the most thoughtful prose ever written by an athlete.
Ashe spent the week of the South African Open in a state of wonder and fear at the sinister, ever-paradoxical nature of apartheid. He found, to his own amazement, that he was pleased to see “Whites Only” signs at public bathrooms in Johannesburg. If he hadn’t, Ashe said, it would have been like going to Paris and not catching a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. One day Ashe was followed by a young boy as he walked in the city. When he finally asked him what he was doing, the boy said that he had never seen a free black man. On another afternoon, though, Ashe was followed in a very different way. As he rode in a car, he realized that the government was having him tailed. One South African player, Cliff Drysdale, agreed with Ashe’s anti-government stance, while another, Bob Hewitt, said that he should mind his own business because under apartheid the blacks of South Africa were “happy.”
Ashe ended up playing, and beating, both Drysdale and Hewitt in the South African Open that year. The American was the crowd favorite both times; his trip was a sensation in the country, each of his matches a tennis Super Bowl, and he ended up reaching the final in both singles and doubles. The black fans—or “nonwhites,” as they were known in the totalitarian vernacular there—were so enthusiastic that Ashe had to tell them to quiet down and not cheer the errors of his opponent in the final, Jimmy Connors. Ashe demanded that the normally segregated seating at the tournament be integrated while he played, but that was beyond even his star powers. Whites watched him from up close; non-whites from afar.
Still, the trip was a success, and even some of those who had told Ashe to stay away were converted. His presence, according to one black figure in South Africa, was “an inspiration—and a challenge.” Did it help change anything, the way Ashe hoped it would? Well, consider this: In 2008, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the South African Open in Johannesburg. Tsonga’s father is a black African. His victory, which would have been unthinkable three decades earlier, barely made the news. The twin universes of sports and culture were up for grabs in 1973. Tennis should be proud that it had two players like Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King who were brave enough to do some of the grabbing. You know you’ve succeeded as rebels when nobody even notices what you changed.
Yet like the Wimbledon boycott, Ashe’s trip also ended up being a triumph for his sometime-enemy of the future, Connors. At the All England Club that year, the 20-year-old Jimbo took advantage of the absence of 80 ATP members to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. In Johannesburg, along with beating Ashe in the final, Connors got engaged to the winner of the women’s singles title that week, Chris Evert. In some ways, while they would both win Wimbledon again, after '73 King and Ashe would be players from the game's past, transformational figures who took their fight for freedom in tennis to the world stage. The bright, clear, free, and prosperous future that they opened up would belong to the game's new co-stars, Jimmy and Chrissie. King and Ashe were political so Connors and Evert didn't have to be.