It was arguably the most meaningful trip of Arthur Ashe’s life. Given how many places he went over the course of a life that lasted less than 50 years, that is saying a lot. But the journey Ashe took in November 1973 was profoundly significant, its impact stretching far beyond the lines of a tennis court.

For years, Ashe had wanted to visit South Africa. He was eager to witness apartheid first-hand. It had taken years for Ashe to obtain permission, but at last on November 17, 1973, he arrived in Johannesburg to simultaneously compete in the South African Open and explore as much of that country as possible.

Over the course of his time in South Africa, Ashe met with activists, politicians, students, writers and many more citizens of this oppressed nation. In his 1975 book, Portrait in Motion, Ashe wrote, “apartheid is handled with such sophistication that it is sometimes easy to forget that South Africa is nothing less than a police state.” Ashe visited Soweto, an impoverished black community. Speaking the next day in Johannesburg to a group of black journalists, Ashe said, “Maybe I’m naïve, but I think, when you’re mapping out a plan for progress, emotion cannot be allowed to play a large role, except for drumming up support.”

Of course, this was easier said than done.

Advertising

Ashe’s presence competing at Ellis Park proved inspirational. Thirteen-year-old Mark Mathabane had grown up in Soweto. Seeing Ashe changed his life. “I had never seen a Black man walk that proudly among whites,” Mathabane wrote in his 1986 memoir, Kaffir Boy. “He appeared calm, cool and collected, even though he was surrounded by a sea of white faces.” Eventually, Mathabane made his way to the United States to play college tennis, later becoming a prominent author.

Then there was also the matter of Ashe’s own tennis. As much as he took on off the court, Ashe remained committed to competing in every corner of the globe. In 1973, he would play 174 matches – 99 in singles, 75 in doubles. Upon arrival in South Africa, Ashe was ranked ninth in the world.

Aided most of all by his superb serve and backhand, Ashe reached the singles final without the loss of a set. There, though, he faced a tough opponent, Jimmy Connors, who won the match in straight sets.

By November 27, Ashe had been in South Africa for well over a week. But there remained one more match – the doubles final. Ashe was entered in the doubles with Tom Okker, a formidable player from the Netherlands. Ashe and Okker had known one another for years. Most notably, Ashe had beaten Okker in the finals of the 1968 US Open. Okker then was ranked fifth in the world in singles and considered an even better doubles player (68 doubles titles in the Open era). Nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman,” Okker’s assets were a lively topspin forehand, exceptional quickness and first-rate volleys.

The Ashe-Okker duo worked hard, winning four matches, including two five-setters, to reach the finals versus the makeshift team of South African Rod Maud and the now 39-year-old Australian legend, Lew Hoad. Ashe and Okker won 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. “In a way,” wrote Ashe, “this might have been the most important doubles match I ever won, for now a Black man’s name rests on the list of South African doubles champions. Etched. Forever.”