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Arthur Ashe, Champion on and Off Court, Dies of AIDS : Sports: Tennis star, 49, was only African-American man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

February 07, 1993|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Arthur Ashe, a champion as a tennis player and a champion off the court in the fight for human rights and against AIDS, died Saturday. He was 49.

New York Hospital administrator Judith Lilavois said Ashe died at 3:13 p.m. EST of pneumonia, a complication of AIDS.

"An additional statement will come from his family and the hospital tomorrow," she said.

Ashe, the only black man to win the Wimbledon championship and the U.S. Open, announced April 8 that he had AIDS after learning that the news was about to leak out in a newspaper report. He said he had contracted the disease from an unscreened blood transfusion during his second open heart surgery in 1983.

Shortly after the announcement, Ashe founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He also joined the boards of the Harvard AIDS Institute and the UCLA AIDS Institute.

Ashe said in an interview last November that he was busier than ever, although he said he had good days and bad days.

"I'm not sick," Ashe said at the time. "My blood-test numbers are holding steady, and I think a lot of it has to do with personal initiative, in addition to what my doctors tell me to do.

"But it does make planning tenuous, no question about that. I tend to plan no farther ahead than in, say, three-month increments because I would not want to be disappointed if I plan for something six months from now and I'm not feeling very good.

"But that's not to say that I'm morbid about it. I'm not in the least. I've lived with this now for 4 1/2 years, so you see you come to some accommodation with it. But professionally I feel rather satisfied."

Ashe's triumphs--both in and out of tennis--were considerable.

His career brought him the singles crowns of all the coveted championships--including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the World Championship Tennis Finals--and earned him the No. 1 ranking on two separate occasions (1968 and 1975).

Despite a series of physical setbacks, Ashe always found a way to climb back to the top. Following a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery, Ashe rebounded to continue his brilliant career, this time with the U.S. Davis Cup team.

Ashe was born July 10, 1943, and grew up in Richmond, Va. He might have stayed there except for tennis, which he started playing in a neighborhood park where his father was employed as a guard.

Ashe's father, Arthur Sr., widowed when Arthur was 6, strongly influenced his character, as did Dr. Walter Johnson, a general practitioner from Lynchburg, Va., whose home was a haven for young tennis hopefuls. Johnson also instituted the virtues of nonviolence in his charges.

This philosophy was evident throughout Ashe's career, particularly when he worked for racial equality in his own quiet way. On the court, he was always known for his gracious behavior.

"I'm no crusader," Ashe said, but his impact was felt, nevertheless, as he opened doors for other blacks.

Ashe said his only idol was Pancho Gonzalez.

"He was the only one whose skin was closest to mine," Ashe said.

Gonzalez said Ashe's serve was "the fastest since my own."

Ashe honed the serve and his style in Johnson's group and went on to gain national stature with victories in 1960 and 1961 in the indoor junior championships.

The titles helped him earn a scholarship to UCLA, which he entered in 1961. He was given a school job--he tended the tennis courts, the same ones he practiced on--and gained enough experience to capture the national collegiate championship.

Three years later, at 25, Ashe fashioned the first of many banner campaigns: He won the initial U.S. Open in 1968 as an amateur, was ranked No. 1 in the world and helped the United States team defeat Australia for its first Davis Cup victory in five years. (During his 10-year Cup career, Ashe produced a 28-6 record that placed him on four winning teams.)

The early 1970s brought a host of highlights. Ashe added another Grand Slam event to his list, winning the 1970 Australian Open, and teamed with Marty Riessen to capture the 1971 French Open doubles title. That same year, he began a string of four consecutive appearances in the World Championship Tennis Finals; the streak reached its apex in 1975 when he triumphed over 19-year-old Bjorn Borg to win that prestigious crown.

The WCT win set the stage for one of Ashe's proudest moments. Matched against the seemingly invincible Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final, Ashe summoned up the skills and the savvy needed to secure a 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 win.

The victory helped Ashe again earn No. 1 ranking in men's tennis; it marked the 10th time in as many years that he was listed among the world's top five.

Following another productive campaign in 1976--wins in five of eight final-round tournament appearances--Ashe was forced to sit out most of 1977 because of a recurring heel injury and an eye inflammation. In the face of the injuries and a plummeting computer ranking, which fell to No. 257, most observers concluded that a brilliant career was coming to a close.

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