- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

His concentration unwavering as always, the tall, bespectacled American tennis player stared across the net at his rival. He led 40-love and was serving for the match in the men's singles final.
So far, he had pounded 26 aces in the five-set match, but opponent Tom Okker of the Netherlands got his racket on this serve. It didn't matter. The American sprinted to the net and volleyed Okker's return to end the match.
It was Sept. 9, 1968, and 25-year-old Arthur Ashe of Richmond had become the first black man to win the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in this first year of his sport's Open era.
More than 34 years later, it isn't news when a black athlete leaves opponents of any racial persuasion eating his dust nor when Serena and Venus Williams dominate women's competition in the once lily-white preserve of tennis. But in 1968, a year when political assassinations and an unwanted war brought upheavals and unrest around the nation, Arthur Ashe was striking a blow for the theory that a person's color didn't matter in the supposedly democratic world of sports.
Ashe's life, and death from AIDS at 50, touched so many that it seems irreverent and irrelevant to cite a tennis achievement as his signature moment. Yet winning the U.S. Open was the highlight of his competitive career and gave him the visibility and stature to pursue his goals in other, more important areas. And fittingly, the tournament now is contested each year at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
Ashe learned to play tennis in the segregated precincts of central Virginia in the unenlightened '50s, then became a star at UCLA. After winning the singles title in the 1965 NCAA tournament and playing Wimbledon and Davis Cup, he was well known when the 1968 U.S. Open began in late August with amateurs and professionals competing together for the first time.
By way of warming up, Ashe had defeated Bob Lutz to win the U.S. Nationals amateur tournament. And when somebody threw up the first ball at Forest Hills, Ashe was ready. He easily survived the first week, then dispatched Roy Emerson in the round of 16, Cliff Drysdale in the quarterfinals and Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner to gain the final against Okker.
In a first set that lasted 26 games, Ashe fired 15 aces. So devastating was his serve that at one point as Ashe prepared to let fly another rocket, Okker turned his back in mock surrender.
Nonetheless, Okker managed to hang tough before losing the 64-minute set 14-12, then evened the match by winning the second 7-5. Perhaps because both were temporarily exhausted, Ashe won the third set in just 18 minutes and Okker the fourth in 20 minutes, both by 6-3 scores.
Now came the decisive fifth set. Ashe broke out to a 5-2 lead before Okker kept it going by taking the eighth game. In the ninth, however, Ashe wrapped it up by volleying a forehand winner, ripping his 26th ace and hitting a backhand winner before the final point.
The magnificent victory didn't come easy. Said Ashe afterward: "Nobody can imagine what agony you face in a close five-set match, especially in scorching weather. Your feet hurt, your racket hand hurts, your one-pound racket is as heavy as a shovel, your head pounds and your eyes burn."
Of course, it was all worth it.
"I went back to serve the first game of the final set, and everything seemed to be building," Ashe said. "My father was in the stands, and so was Dr. Robert Johnson [whose tennis camps he had attended as a child]. As long as the game was played, there will be only one [truly] first U.S. Open."
His marvelous triumph in a white man's sport made Ashe a worldwide figure. Asked what the future held, he said he faced a military hitch, "but then I'm going to say some things and do some things. Before I'm through, I imagine I'll step on a lot of toes."
And he did.
Before he was forced to stop playing competitive tennis in 1979 following a heart attack at 36 and quadruple-bypass surgery, Ashe also won the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. His lifetime Davis Cup record was 27-5, and twice he captained the United States to victories. He won 51 of the 304 open tournaments he entered and compiled a match record of 818-260.
But by the late '70s, Ashe had become more of a political and social lightning rod than an athlete. He raised millions for causes like the American Heart Association and United Negro College Fund. With singer Harry Belafonte, he founded Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. When former South African president Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years as a political prisoner, the first person he wanted to meet was Ashe. Everywhere he could, Ashe spoke out against racism, poverty and social stereotyping.
Then, shatteringly, tragedy struck. During a physical exam in 1988, Ashe learned he was HIV-positive, the result of a tainted transfusion during a second heart surgery in 1983. Aware of the paranoia and prejudice associated with AIDS in its early years, Ashe kept the news quiet for four years. Finally, with the rumors spreading, he acknowledged in a news conference April8, 1992, that he had the disease.
In the history of sports, perhaps only the retirement of baseball star Lou Gehrig in 1939, and the subsequent news that he had terminal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brought such an outpouring of grief. Yet Gehrig's illness touched only people in the United States. Ashe's produced grief around the globe.
When Arthur Ashe died at age 49 on Feb.6, 1993, just more than 10 years ago, it perhaps was appropriate that his death came during Black History Month. Few Americans in his time or any other had done more to break through the racial barriers that separate and demean us.


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