The world of men’s tennis is full of legendary figures. Two of them—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—are still very much in the midst of their playing careers. Others like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Bjorn Borg have seen their reputations grow even in retirement. The accomplishments of such men are unimpeachable, but rarely extend beyond the court.
The late Arthur Ashe holds a far more unique place in tennis history, having been both a dominant player and a leading social activist. Ashe was the first black man to win a major tennis title. He was also a strong advocate of black athletes in general. Here we take a look back at his career, while investigating his pioneering three-volume study of black athletes and its ongoing relevance today.
Ashe’s accomplishments on the court
Ashe discovered tennis as a seven-year-old boy, and soon showed considerable promise at the sport. Barred from many public tennis clubs in his home state of Virginia, Ashe instead studied with a black coach, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. Ashe made it all the way to the junior national championships during his very first tournament appearance.
Ashe burst onto the national scene in 1963, when he became the first black player recruited by the U.S. Davis Cup team. Five years later, while still considered an amateur, Ashe stunned the tennis community by winning the U.S. Open. To this day, he is still the only black man to win a major title.
In 1970, Ashe also won the Australian Open. Then in 1975, Ashe achieved arguably his greatest on-court victory, winning the Wimbledon finals. That year he was also ranked the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world. Ashe continued to remain a competitive force in the tennis world until retiring in 1980.
A must-read history of black athletes
Determined to remain active after retiring, Ashe soon set himself a monumental task: writing a comprehensive history of black athletes. He was inspired to do so after realizing that almost no books existed on the subject. The most recent one, “The Negro in Sports,” had originally been published over forty years earlier, in 1938.
As Ashe began to investigate what it would take to fill in that missing piece of history, he realized what a daunting undertaking it would be. So he enlisted the help of a team of researchers to help him compile pertinent information. In the course of researching the book, Ashe found himself struck by how little he knew about even the most legendary black sports figures:
“Soon I learned that while I admired Jackie Robinson’s prowess on the diamond, I had no conception of the struggle he faced, the hardships he overcame.”
In the end, it took nearly six years for the project to come to fruition. The work, titled “A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete,” was so thorough that it encompassed three separate volumes. According to Ashe himself, the book was “more important than any tennis titles.”
New relevance in 2020
Ashe’s book was recognized as a groundbreaking work upon publication back in 1988. Today, however, the work is sadly out of print. Although you can still find used copies online, the last edition of the book was published back in 1993. Hopefully things won’t stay that way for long, since Ashe’s book is ripe for rediscovery in our age of increasing athlete activism.
In fact, it is fair to say that awareness of racial issues has never been greater in professional sports. Just look at recent events in the NBA, with players boycotting multiple playoff games after the shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. High-profile sports figures from Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James are now comfortable raising their voices to speak out on social issues.
Ashe was a pioneer in those regards, and his monumental study of the role played by black athletes over the centuries deserves to find new readers in 2020.