Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
20. Arthur Ashe
Years played: 1963–1980
Major titles: 3 (1975 Wimbledon, 1970 Australian Open, 1968 US Open)
Ashe went beyond tennis, beyond its rankings, its white lines and its statistics. In his commitment to racial justice and his barrier breaking in the US and South Africa, he expanded our idea of what a sportsman could be or do. In any list of the most important male athletes of the 20th century, he would be the first tennis player to merit a mention. For the purposes of this survey, though, we’re only concerned with his accomplishments in between those white lines. But those were nearly as impressive.
Barred from the best public tennis facilities in his native Richmond, Va., Ashe trained at the home of an African-American coach, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. There the long, lanky and shy boy—he was called “Bones” because he was so skinny—brought his powerful serve and backhand to bear on the classic serve-and-volley game. Cautious off the court, he played with no-holds-barred abandon on it.
That aggression and athleticism was a winning combination from the start, and would lead him to a steady stream of firsts. In 1963, Ashe achieved his earliest goal by becoming the first black man named to the U.S. Davis Cup team. Five years later, he became the first (and still only) African-American man to win the US Open. In 1973, he became the first black man to enter the South Africa Open, a breakthrough credited with helping put an early crack in that nation’s apartheid regime. In 1975, at age 31, Ashe capped his historic career with one last first. By changing his game completely to upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors in the final, he became the first black player to win Wimbledon.
For all that Ashe did on the court, we’ll never know how much more he could have accomplished if he hadn’t felt the need to do so much more than his fellow pros off it. Where most great players feel an obligation to live up to their talents, Ashe felt an obligation to use his to further the cause of his people. Inside the white lines, he may be just the 20th-best male player of the Open era; outside of them, no man compares.
Defining Moment: Ashe played slam-bang tennis for his entire career, with the exception of one match. Faced with the task of beating a young terror named Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final, Ashe retooled his game for the moment: He sliced, he dinked, he soft-balled—and he won.
Watch: Stories of the Open Era - Arthur Ashe