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

By Paul Gittings CNN | 9/19/2013, 7:12 a.m.
Tennis hero, inspiring role model for African Americans, social activist and high-profile campaigner for the HIV and AIDS communities, Arthur ...
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.

Ashe was still a serving officer when he won his first grand slam title at the 1968 U.S. Open, the first of the Open Era when professionals were also allowed to compete.

"He wasn't just the first African American male to win the U.S. Open but he actually was the first American period to win the U.S. Open because the U.S. Open didn't begin until 1968," Moutoussamy Ashe emphasizes.

Ashe was discharged from the Army in 1969 and after winning his second grand slam crown at the 1970 Australian Open turned professional.

A prominent supporter of the American civil rights movement, Ashe's political principles were tested when he was denied a visa by the apartheid government of South Africa to compete in their national open later that year.

Ashe campaigned for South Africa to be excluded from the International Tennis Federation but although his demands were not met, he was eventually allowed a visa to compete in the 1973 South African Open, the first black male to do so.

Ashe continued to speak out against the apartheid regime and after Nelson Mandela was released having served 27 years in prison, the tennis star returned to South Africa in 1991 as a member of a 31-strong delegation to observe the profound political changes in the country.

He met Mandela several times and modestly observed: "Compared to Mandela's sacrifice, my own life has been one almost of self-indulgence. When I think of him, my own political efforts seem puny."

But others would disagree. Andrew Young, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, once famously said of Ashe: "He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity."

Young, a pastor turned leading politician, presided over Ashe's wedding to Jeanne in 1977 after they had met at a charity event just six months previously where Moutoussamy Ashe was attending as a working photographer.

Ashe was by then a three-time grand slam singles champion having shocked top seed Jimmy Connors in a epic 1975 Wimbledon final, but it was to prove his last as injury and eventual illness took their toll.

The world was shocked in 1979 when the super-fit Ashe suffered a heart attack and underwent a bypass operation.

He was set to return to the tennis tour when further complications arose and he was forced to announce his retirement, doing it in typically fastidious fashion.

"He had about 30 letters that he had written individually to people, contracts that he had, promises and commitments he had to people, he just wrote them personally and said 'I'm retiring and I want you to be the first to know,'" recalled Moutoussamy Ashe.

In retirement, he took over as captain of the United States Davis Cup team, but in 1983 he had to undergo a second round of heart surgery in New York.

It was during his operation that Ashe is believed to have contracted the HIV virus from infected blood transfusions.

He learned of the diagnosis in 1988 after another health scare, but for the sake of their adopted two-year old daughter Camera, Ashe and his wife kept the illness private.