50 Years, 50 Heroes: Arthur Ashe, 1971

by: Steve Tignor | November 27, 2018

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In his words and with his actions, Arthur Ashe always saw the bigger picture. (Getty Images)

For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

"We moved so quickly—six countries in 17 days—that we had to wonder about the impact and whether the trip meant anything. An exhibition here, a clinic there … then gone. A veritable scratching of the surface, and how can anybody truly appraise it?” - Bud Collins / January 1971

Half a century after he became the first and only black man to win the US Open, are there any praises left to sing about the late Arthur Ashe? His name adorns the largest tennis stadium in the world, and his many accomplishments—as an athlete, an activist, a scholar, a teacher, a father—continue to be celebrated in a never-ending stream of books, articles and documentaries. Twenty-five years after his death, of AIDS, at age 49, Ashe remains tennis’ most important male player.

What might Ashe have to teach us in 2018, at a time when political polarization in the U.S. has been carried to unprecedented extremes? There may be a lesson in how he handled his opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. While he condemned its racist government, and did whatever he could to undermine it, Ashe always separated the country’s rulers and its system from the individuals who made up its people. He counted South African players like Cliff Drysdale and Ray Moore among his best and most respected friends on tour, and when some activists pressured him to boycott his matches against them, Ashe refused. He knew who his enemies were, and who they weren’t.

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