Arthur Ashe always had the leadership to change the world, and his historic 1968 US Open title finally provided the platform
Johnnie Ashe: ‘I said, ‘You did it, bruh.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m a champion. Now, people will listen to me.’ ‘
Arthur Ashe Jr. always wanted to make a profound change. Before he stepped on a tennis court, he perused encyclopedias and absorbed everything he could about London, France and Australia as a child.
His plan was to play in Wimbledon, the French Open and Australian Open, so he needed to be well-versed on not only the tournaments but also the host countries.
Johnnie Ashe understood his older brother’s desire better than anyone, but even he found himself blown away by Arthur’s focus when they were younger. After Johnnie cold-clocked a third-grade classmate who called Arthur a sissy for playing tennis, Johnnie asked his brother, “Why tennis?”
After all, they were playground kids, so there were other options out there.
“Because I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis,” a 12-year-old Arthur told Johnnie.
If one considers how much Ashe’s path mirrors Robinson’s — both attended UCLA and spent time in the military — it’s apparent how good Ashe was at speaking things into existence.
A week before the inaugural US Open, Ashe expressed how this was the best he had ever felt. Johnnie Ashe attributed it to the weight program at West Point that made Ashe not only stronger but also quicker. Johnnie Ashe asked his brother, “What’s stopping you?”
“Nothing really,” Ashe said. “I’ve got a great draw. I can win this one.”
So when the slight Army lieutenant finished serving 26 aces to defeat Netherlands’ Tom Okker 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 on Sept. 8, 1968, he called his brother two hours after becoming the first black man to win a Grand Slam tournament and the first winner of the US Open.
A few things were achieved with that victory. Ashe fulfilled the promise he made to his mother on her deathbed. He lived up to his expectations and the expectations of those who helped him get to that point. And Ashe’s voice, the one he always had on topics of import, would now have a broader platform.
“There were a lot of things swirling around in his mind, because Arthur was never just a tennis player, he was a true neo-Renaissance man,” Johnnie Ashe said. “I think this was one of those times that he took it upon himself to rise to the occasion, because  was a rough year for us. He knew the Kennedy brothers; they were friends. Martin Luther King [Jr.] was gone. I think he felt that somebody had to step up.
“I said, ‘You did it, bruh.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m a champion. Now people will listen to me.’ So that told me that tournament was a transition in his life. No longer would he just be a tennis player as far as the public was concerned. Because those who didn’t know him didn’t realize how intellectual Arthur was, but they were about to find out. I think that him winning that and becoming the champion of the US Open opened up a whole new direction that he could take, because he knew he would be listened to. His opinions would matter.”
Ashe was known as a humanitarian as much as he was an athlete, speaking out on social injustice and discrimination.
The United States Tennis Association is celebrating the man, the tennis player and the 50th anniversary of Ashe’s historic victory at the 2018 US Open, which began on Monday.
On the south side of the stadium, the USTA unveiled a new logo for Arthur Ashe Stadium during Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day. Never-before-published photos, featured as 6-foot enlargements, lined the walkway connecting Court 17 and the grandstand.
A virtual reality experience is giving fans a front-row seat to witness Ashe’s 1968 title win, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point will also honor Ashe on Sept. 3. Darryl A. Williams, West Point superintendent, will present a flag to Johnnie Ashe on center court.
“The one thing that made him very proud, and this to me is very meaningful. … You know when they announce at the nationals, they say, ‘Point, Mr. Federer,’ or ‘Point, Mr. Nadal.’ For him they said, ‘Point, Lt. Ashe,’ ” said Joe Reeder, who served as President Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of the Army from 1993-97. “For him it was very moving because he had been in the ROTC at UCLA, so he was a second lieutenant at West Point. And it made the cadets feel very good that he considered that special.”
Both Johnnie Ashe, who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, and Reeder, who served over several decades and in several capacities as a member of the Army and attended West Point while Ashe was an assistant coach on the tennis team, spoke at length about Ashe’s will to win.
The way he went about winning was the opposite of then-Army basketball coach Bob Knight, renowned for his fiery and in-your-face personality. Oh, there was never any question Ashe wanted to beat you, and Reeder said Ashe would get fed up and lose patience if he allowed the rallies to go on too long because he was trying to make quick work of his opponent.
That said, Ashe never lost his composure. His game was always staying cool under pressure and beating the brakes off an opponent with as few theatrics as possible. He weighed only 150 or so pounds when he played that US Open, but when he hit the ball at an opponent, he felt the full weight of that in his shot.
“In his mind, and he was infectious with it, losing really wasn’t an option,” Reeder said. “Or playing anything less than 100 percent was not an option. Even if you had a cold or you had a fever or a pulled muscle or something like that, he gave it everything he could. One of the most admirable traits of a great leader is being able to set an example, so when you’re down and out and you’re giving everything you’ve got, it picks everybody else up.”
Said Johnnie Ashe: “I think his time in the military was a part of his evolution. And I honestly believe that Arthur’s evolution was divinely led. I really do, because let’s face it, an Arthur Ashe only happens every so often.”
Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. He lost his mother as a 6-year-old, but he remembered the promises he made to her: Help his father with Johnnie, be a good boy and make something of himself. As a preteen and teenager, he traveled the world through his encyclopedias and started laying the bricks for the day he eventually found himself playing in London, Paris and Sydney.
He was mentored by Oliver Hill, who was one of the original members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and who talked Arthur Ashe Sr. into allowing Dr. Robert Johnson to mentor his son in tennis. Ashe played for UCLA, which featured several members of the U.S. Davis Cup team (Ashe was the first black member), then went to West Point, where his leadership skills were molded and sharpened by the academy.
Everything Ashe had studied and been through prepared him for that whirlwind in 1968. And at 25, his US Open title was a watershed moment not only for black tennis players and athletes but for athletes who would speak on social and moral issues.
“That was the point when Arthur, in his mind, I think, said, ‘I’ve lived up to what Daddy expected me to be,’ ” Johnnie Ashe said. ” ‘I have lived up to what Dr. Johnson wanted me to be. I have lived up to what I promised my mother that I would be somebody.’ … In his mind, that was always a promise that he had to keep to his mother, because that was Arthur’s mindset even at that point.
“So what the US Open did was released him, in a way, from a certain set of burdens he had been carrying up to that point in life. Now he could be the Arthur Ashe that he truly wanted to. Up to that point, he was living his life for somebody else; there’s no doubt about it in my mind. But after that point, he could be the man, the athlete and the citizen of the world that he wanted to be, that he truly was.”