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.