Friday, 3 July 2015

Arthur Ashe - proper hero

'Arthur Ashe: more than a champion' is an excellent BBC documentary about the great tennis player (1943-1993). Obviously I knew about his iconic status as the first black man to win Wimbledon (though not the first black Wimbledon champion for as the programme mentioned, Althea Gibson won the women's championship as early as 1957).  The prejudice he faced growing up in Richmond, Virginia - where he was prevented from taking part in some segregated local tennis tournaments - reminded me of current debates about the legacy of the pro-slavery Confederacy in the US Civil War. It was enormously political significant that a statue of Ashe was placed on Monument Avenue in Richmond, alongside the statues of Confederate leaders. Only last  week, 'Black Lives Matter' was sprayed on a Confederate statue there amidst calls to take down the Confederate flag from public buildings following the recent racist massacre at a black church in Charleston.

Ashe and Connors at Wimbledon

I was less familiar with Ashe's role in the Association of Tennis Professionals, the union which helped shift the power from the tennis establishment towards players in early 1970s. Ashe's victory over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975 had another significance in this respect, as Connors had refused to join the ATP's boycott of Wimbledon two years earlier, imposed in protest at the Yugoslavian player Nikola Pilić being banned from the tournament. Although he had to retire from tennis due to health issues - initially heart problems and later AIDS- Ashe remained active in many fields up until the end. For instance he was arrested in 1992 for protesting about the treatment of Haitian refugees, not long before his death.

I was also unaware of Ashe's role as a historian - I must check out his work, A Hard Road to Glory: a History of the African American Athlete since 1946.

Of course like most tennis players, Ashe incorporated running into his training. Here he is jogging in London on 19 June 1979 during the Wimbledon fortnight

The documentary is available until July 25th 2015 on BBC iplayer

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