My history hero: Tracy Austin chooses Arthur Ashe

The former women’s No 1 tennis player Tracy Austin chooses Arthur Ashe (1943–93)

Arthur Ashe in action at Wimbledon, where he won the men's singles title in 1975. (Photo by Ed Lacey / Popperfoto / Getty Images)

Arthur Ashe was an American tennis player who won three Grand Slam singles titles, and is still the only black man to have won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. He was also the first black player to be selected for the US Davis Cup team. Ashe, who became known for his social activism after retiring, is believed to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during heart bypass surgery.

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When did you first hear about Ashe?

As a girl of 12, growing up and passionate about tennis, I first became aware of him when he won the final against Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975. Arthur played a thoughtful, tactical match: it wasn’t so much about power as about backhand slices, hitting the ball low and not allowing Jimmy his rhythm. I’ll always remember everyone at my tennis club sitting around and watching the game, aware that history was being made.

What kind of person was he?

By the time I was making my way in the tennis world, he was already well established and had won a number of titles. I was lucky to get to know him, in part because we had the same agent, and he became something of a mentor to me. I instantly liked him: he was softly spoken, humble, bright and articulate. He always did the right thing and taught me a lot about how to deal with the media. That was a great help, particularly when I played my first Wimbledon aged 14.

What made Ashe a hero?

Firstly, his struggle to make it as a tennis player. When he started out, America was a very different place, and he was not allowed to compete in all-white tournaments. He opened the door for so many African-American players, like Serena Williams. Secondly, his hugely important work as a social activist – indeed, I think his activism was perhaps even more important than his tennis. For instance, he started the National Junior Tennis League, which is still going strong and has enabled thousands of underprivileged kids to gain experience playing tennis. So his legacy lives on.

When he started out, America was a very different place, and he was not allowed to compete in all-white tournaments

What was his finest hour?

Winning at Wimbledon was one. Watching him, I realised how you had to adapt your game depending on your opponent and the playing surface. Another was his role in fighting apartheid. His repeated requests for a visa to compete in the South African Open were denied – in protest at this discrimination, he campaigned for US sanctions against South Africa. Thirdly, his bravery in fighting HIV. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids, to educate people and to help find a cure for the condition. He was aware that there were bigger things in the world beyond the lines of a tennis court.

Do you think he would have pursued his social activism had he lived?

Absolutely. He was 49 years old when he died, which was way too young. A man like Arthur, with such a commitment to social change, would have continued trying to make the world a better place. He may even have ended up going into politics.

Tracy Austin was talking to York Membery. Austin is a former world No 1 tennis player. She won the US Open twice (1979 and 1981), as well as the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon in 1980. She is commentating on this year’s Wimbledon Championships for BBC television

The 2019 Wimbledon Championships are airing live on BBC TV – on BBC One, BBC Two and the BBC Red Button

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This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine