Thirty-three years ago this summer, a tennis player thought to be way past his prime set his sights on winning the biggest tournament that had eluded him in his illustrious career. In a sport where teenager winners are common, where young twenty-somethings dominate, and thirty-one-year-olds are essentially irrelevant, Arthur Ashe told himself in the spring of 1975 that he would give Wimbledon one more serious try. Since his teens, he had been unsuccessful at the All England Club, losing most often to his nemesis, Rod Laver.

Ashe had won the U.S. Open at the age of 24 and became a superstar. Two years later, he and other American tennis players were invited to South Africa to play tennis exhibitions. The reason for the invitation was clear to Ashe: the South African government wanted to clean up its international racist image to be allowed to participate in the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal.

Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1943. Though only 90 miles from Washington D.C., Richmond was as racist a city as any in the traditional deep South. As a boy and teenager whose tennis skills were opening doors to life’s greater opportunities, he would have to fulfill them in other states because Virginia prohibited Blacks from competing against Whites in open tennis tournaments.

Ashe went to South Africa because he believed, “At some point you have to face up to your place in American society.” And international society. He believed his tour of South Africa, along with White American players, would demonstrate to Blacks, and Whites, what freedom could accomplish.

He used his fame to grow richer than he had ever thought possible, but more important, he was able to advance the causes in which he believed—not only eradicating the racist apartheid system in South Africa but helping American inner city youth by forming organizations such as the USTA National Junior Tennis League. In doing so, he was spreading himself too thin and his tennis suffered. By 1974, his win percentage dropped below .700 for the first time in his professional career. Yet his resolute self-confidence was as high as ever when he went to Puerto Rico to train for Wimbledon early in 1975. “One important key to success is self-confidence, and an important key to self-confidence is preparation.”

He arrived at Wimbledon as prepared and confident as ever. In the quarterfinals, he defeated a young Bjorn Borg, who the next year would win the first of his record five titles in a row. Ashe proceeded to the finals against 22-year-old Jimmy Connors, who was the new face of tennis and played a brash and aggressive game. In England’s betting parlors, Ashe was a 7 to 1 underdog. He settled on a philosophy that took him to victory: “The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight.” The score of the match looked like a lopsided victory, a three sets to one win for Ashe, his only win in seven career tries against Connors.

For the first time in his career, he was ranked number one in the world, and 1975 was surely the highlight of his tennis career, but not his life. “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, we make a life.” He had participated in the Davis Cup, the international biennial competition, since the early 60s and continued doing so into the early 80s. He continued to crusade against apartheid, against racism in America, and for downtrodden Blacks in Haiti. He taught college courses, continued publishing books, lectured, founded charitable organizations and did what he saw needed doing to make this country and world a better place.

His heart began to give out on him in 1980, necessitating the first of two open heart surgeries, the second in 1983. Via a blood transfusion in that second surgery, he contracted the AIDS virus, but kept it a secret for almost a decade. Under pressure that his condition was about to be made public, he announced his infection in 1992. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, saying, “I’m not a victim, I’m a messenger. . . . You’re not going to believe this, but living with AIDS is not the greatest burden I’ve had to face in my life. Being Black is.”

He did not pity himself: “If I were to say ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.”

Nelson Mandela, the symbol of the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, had been imprisoned for 27 years, but was released in 1990 and traveled to the United States shortly thereafter. On his American tour, he cited the actions of Ashe, no matter how small, as contributing to the downfall of apartheid.

Dozens of laurels, merits, honors, awards and honorary college degrees were bestowed on Ashe in his last years. Some called him a hero. But in his two years of military service in the mid 1960s, he learned about being a hero: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Arthur Ashe left behind a wife and six-year-old daughter when he passed away from complications of AIDS in 1993, and he left a legacy of selfless service to others. He is one of those rare people about whom it was said that his passing was a true loss to the world. He never asked “Why,” but rather, “Why not?” That stiff, unrelenting breeze in his face during his life did not keep him down, but rather allowed him to soar: “Without the wind in my face, I could not have flown so high.”

Author's Bio: 

Bill Cairo is a lifelong sports fan and, in his later years, has realized the inspiration and wisdom sports have to offer--which is why we watch even though we don't realize it. He is a former small animal veterinarian, small business owner, and new owner of a fledgling publishing company, the first book of which is called The Story Behind the Glory: Winning Quotes from Sports Greats on the Game of Life.