1973: Arthur Ashe breaks sporting color barrier in South Africa

by: Steve Tignor | April 09, 2015

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Gentlemen Rebel: Ashe’s historic visit to the apartheid state was of incredible interest. (AP Photo)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.


In November 1973, Arthur Ashe fulfilled 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 changed 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. and South Africa tried to persuade him not to make the trip; they believed that the government was using Ashe to make itself appear 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 of ’73 was the tennis equivalent of Nixon ending the military draft that same year, 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 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 almost 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 across the country, each of his matches a tennis Super Bowl, and he ended up reaching the finals in 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 mostly 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.” Sports have been called a "civic religion" in South Africa, so it may not be an exaggeration when Drysdale said Ashe's trip was instrumental in beginning the two-decade process of dismantling apartheid.

And consider this: In 2009, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the SA Open in Johannesburg. Tsonga’s father is a black African. His victory, which would have been unthinkable—not to mention illegal—three decades earlier, barely caused a ripple in 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 Ashe and 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.

 

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