The day Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win the US Open
Ashe earned the top ranking in the country with the five-set victory
After spending three years ranked as the second-best amateur player in the United States, Arthur Ashe sealed his ascension to the top ranking with his five-set victory over Tom Okker in the first US Open tennis championships.
The win on Sept. 9, 1968, also made Ashe, an Army lieutenant at West Point, the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam event. Ashe used more than 25 aces to defeat the Dutchman, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in front of 7,100 spectators at the West Side Tennis Club.
It was Ashe’s 26th straight victory since winning the Pennsylvania Grass Court Championships at Merion in July. Two weeks earlier, on Aug. 25, 1968, Ashe helped solidify his case for the top ranking by winning the U.S. Amateur Championships in five sets against U.S. Davis Cup teammate Bob Lutz.
That made Ashe the first black person to win the event and the first player to win the U.S. Amateur and US Open in the same calendar year.
It was the first US Open played during the Open era, when amateurs and pros could play together. Okker, a registered player who still retained his amateur status, may have lost the match, but he walked away with the $14,000 first prize by beating Australian Ken Rosewall, the last pro in the tournament. Once Ashe completed his service tour in February 1969 and he negotiated with the touring groups of professionals, he would also be eligible to play for expenses or prize money under the national association.
“Just another day at the office,” Ashe shrugged he told the Baltimore Sun‘s Jim Caffrey. “I never get too excited about winning anything; it’s just my philosophy of life.
“I knew right from the start that I was going to have to have a day because I was serving well for the first time all week.
“I know that Tom is probably the fastest man on the court today, so I tried to lob him to death — to make him tired. But I was serving well, and that was the whole story.”
Ashe explained to The Washington Post‘s Mark Asher that bringing the Davis Cup back to the States later that year was of greater importance to him.
Of equal importance, Ashe told Asher, was using his success to help African-Americans: “There are a lot of social and racial problems. I have a mandate to do all I can. … We have to learn from mistakes. We all know the problems in the world. The solution for the future is to study the past.”
At Forest Hills, New York, Ashe overcame Okker by making very few errors: five double faults to the Dutch player’s eight, and missing his first serve 70 times to Okker’s 83. The 25-year-old Richmond, Virginia, native wrapped up the first set in an hour and three minutes thanks to hitting 17 of his aces during the frame.
In the second set, a combination of masterful shots by Okker and mistakes by Ashe allowed the Dutchman to even the match at one set apiece. Okker rode that success in the first game of the third set before Ashe stomped that out with cross-court forehand service returns.
Okker only came close to breaking Ashe, the Sun reported, in the 23rd game, when the U.S. Davis Cup captain saved two break points before finally taking a game that had gone to deuce three times.
Three games later, The Boston Globe wrote, with Okker serving, Ashe won the set with spectacular forehand and backhand volleys after the game went to deuce five times. Ashe then served a love game for the match.
“I just couldn’t return the ball well against him because of his hard serve — and service return is the biggest part of my game,” Okker told the Sun. “I like to play long points and to try to hit winners or let the other guy make errors, but against him, you just don’t play enough tennis.”