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Arthur Ashe: U.S. Sport's Greatest Black Icon?

By Paul Gittings CNN | 9/19/2013, 7:12 a.m.
Born in 1943, Arthur Ashe was brought up in the segregated South in Richmond, Virginia and first tested his tennis skills on a blacks only playground in the city.

(CNN) -- Tennis hero, inspiring role model for African Americans, social activist and high-profile campaigner for the HIV and AIDS communities, Arthur Ashe died in 1993, but it is a measure of his influence that 20 years on his legacy burns as brightly as ever.

The main stadium court at Flushing Meadows, where the U.S. Open is staged, is named in his honor, a striking statue of Ashe adorns the grounds, while the Arthur Ashe Kids' Day is a glittering annual bash that kick starts the fortnight for the final grand slam of the season. Michelle Obama was the guest of honor this year.

His widow Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe has made it her life's work to ensure her late husband's memory is preserved for generations and the presidential endorsement is the icing on the cake.

"It makes me very proud that Arthur has his name raised up for kids who didn't have a clue who he is," she told CNN's Open Court program.

"It was such a great honor. I'm born and raised on the south side of Chicago, as is Mrs Obama, so to be sitting here next to her with her daughters was just great fun.

"And that she's so supportive of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center and so supportive of Arthur's legacy.

"I don't think we could have asked for a better situation that day, it was just wonderful."

Moutoussamy Ashe was sharing her experiences with former American Davis Cup star James Blake, who has recently retired from the ATP Tour.

Blake told her that Ashe has been his idol and inspiration growing up.

"Being an African American playing tennis, his impact on me was great and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, being someone that went to college and was educated and had such a great influence on the world," he said.

The impact that Blake talks about went far beyond the narrow confines of professional sport.

Ashe once famously said "I don't want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments" and Moutoussamy Ashe has done her level best to promote his wish.

"The game of tennis really just gave him a platform to speak about the issues that he cared so much about," she said.

"I think he was a role model for a whole lot of kids which is why his legacy is so important to promote today.

"We don't want a whole generation of kids today and generations to come to not know that he was more than a tennis player."

Born in 1943, Ashe was brought up in the segregated South in Richmond, Virginia and first tested his tennis skills on a blacks only playground in the city.

He developed his talent in high school and earned a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963, that year becoming the first African American to represent the United States in the Davis Cup.

A member of the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), Ashe was eventually required to do military service and spent three years in the United States Military Academy at West Point, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.