As the only black man to win the US Open, Wimbledon and rank as the number one tennis player in the world, Arthur Ashe was a man of quite a few firsts. In 1968, Ashe won the very first US Open tournament, however, the Virginia native’s commendable qualities weren’t only limited to his athletic abilities. Ashe made sure not to spend his 23 years in the limelight in vein and advocated against systemic oppression. For four years, racial segregation in South Africa prevented him from being able to enter the country, much less compete in its national tennis championship; but in 1973, he was finally granted a visa which led him to become the first black man to professionally play in the South African Open.
The long-awaited admission into the country wouldn’t prevent Ashe from advocating against apartheid in the years to come. In 1985, he was arrested, along with 47 others, for protesting outside of the South African embassy in Washington. Understandably so, his dedication to social progress wasn’t just limited to the motherland.
One year before dying from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993, Ashe began lobbying for HIV/AIDS awareness soon before his struggle with the disease would be made public by USA Today. He even established the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health dedicated to combat illnesses which disproportionately affect minorities.
Less than 20 years after Ashe won the inaugural US Open, the United States Tennis Association would name the primary stadium used for the US Open after Ashe.
In August 1997, the Arthur Ashe Stadium opened in Flushing, New York. The stadium was a result of an agreement between New York City’s then Mayor David Dinkins and USTA to honor Ashe. August 25 will mark the 20th anniversary of the stadium’s opening.
On this anniversary, we remember Ashe’s legacy. Some found the athletic icon’s ethnicity as hard to ignore as his impeccable serve. But he surpassed the countless limitations imposed by racism. In doing so, he made way for other skilled black players like the Williams sisters, Frances Tiafoe, Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka, and countless others to pick up the racquet. Today, we celebrate the mark Ashe made on African-American history, tennis history and on the lives of so many fans, on and off the court.
19 years after the Arthur Ashe tennis stadium opened for business, a young Frances Tiafoe prepared to play in the US Open at the Grandstand Stadium last September. The proximity between Grandstand where Tiafoe would elevate his status in the sport and the stadium memorialized for Ashe, who paved the way for men like Tiafoe is striking.
Tiafoe, the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants, took a liking to tennis through his dad’s maintenance work at a tennis center in Maryland. He and his brother would watch and imitate the plays they saw on the court. One of the coaches at the center later realized Frances had potential to become a player. He now has broken into the top 100 in the ATP World Tour rankings and continues to rise.
In 2015, Madison Keys, another tennis star on the rise, was just 19 years old. The proverbial “age ain’t nothing but a number” didn’t stop the biracial tennis player from competing and winning a match against tennis ace Venus Williams in that year’s Australian Open. The game must have represented a critical turning point in Keys’ career. Just four years prior to her victory over Williams, the Florida native told World Tennis Magazine that upon seeing a white tennis dress once worn by Williams sparked her interest in the sport.
Now, look at her. In August 2016, Keys was ranked as the ninth tennis player in the world. This position made her the first American woman to be ranked in the Top 10 since Serena Williams in 1999. Keys now ranks No. 16 going into the US Open.
Although 19-year old Naomi Osaka was raised in New York, the majority of her fanbase is rooted in Japan. Osaka, who is Haitian-Japanese, lived in the country until she was three years old. So, upon the insistence of her father, she plays under the Japanese Tennis Association. In spite of this, her name has been on the tongues of some of America’s biggest players. During the 2016 Australian Open, Serena Williams, whom Osaka considers an idol, recognized Osaka wasn’t your average rising talent.
“I have seen her play,” Serena said during last year’s Open. “She’s really young and really aggressive. She’s a really good, talented player. Very dangerous.”
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