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GUEST COLUMN

Arthur Ashe ushered in ‘Open Era' of tennis at U.S. Open 40 years ago

Friday, September 5, 2008 - 11:13 am

When Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968 he ushered in the “Open Era” of tennis, which allowed both professional and amateur players to compete against each other. Ashe's historic victory planted the seeds of change in tennis that have clearly been manifested over the past four decades.

When Ashe beat Tom Okker in the final, he received the winner's trophy and $20 a day in per diem, while the runner-up received the winner's share of $14,000 because Ashe was an amateur. The money was simply part of the sacrifice he made so the future generation of players would benefit today.

I was fortunate enough to have met Ashe in 1992 before a lecture he gave at Indiana University. In our brief conversation I expressed my love for tennis and asked how I could get better. He softly stated, “You have to practice.” Now, 16 years later, I am attending this year's U.S. Open as a credentialed journalist, writing about the man who began the Open Era in tennis.

When I met Ashe I knew he was a good tennis player but hadn't fully known of his accomplishments off the court.

Now I certainly do.

Ashe was born in Richmond, Va., on July 10, 1943. As a youngster he was introduced to the game by his father, Arthur Ashe Sr. Later Ashe's skills would be honed by his coach, Robert Walter Johnson. He was a standout tennis player at Sumner High School and was featured in Sports Illustrated.

Ashe entered UCLA in 1963 and in 1965 won the NCAA singles title. Besides his U.S. Open victory in 1968, Ashe won the U.S. Amateur Championships and led the U.S Davis Cup team to victory. He is the only player to have won both the Amateur and Open national championships in the same year.

When Ashe ushered in the Open Era of tennis, the societal conditions were horrific and racism was ripping America apart. The country was involved in an unpopular war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was slain in June. As a result, race riots took place all over the country during the summer.

Ashe himself once suggested the biggest ordeal in his life wasn't a tough opponent or AIDS — it was dealing with the complexities of racism. Ashe stated, “Living with AIDS is not the greatest burden I've had in my life. Being black is.”

He also said, “AIDS killed my body, but racism is harder to bear. It kills the soul.”

Ashe consistently displayed courage in battling opponents on the court, racism in America, apartheid abroad and AIDS in his last days

Without a doubt, Ashe was a courageous man.

As a reminder of his marked courage, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is given annually to individuals who display courage in the face of adversity. The 2008 recipients were former Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos for the stand they took at the 1968 Olympics. With their fists raised to the sky and their heads bowed, Smith and Carlos protested against racism on the world's largest athletic stage. Their demonstration was a silent gesture heard around the world.

It's often difficult to visualize what's possible without a visible prototype. Ashe, along with the great female tennis great Althea Gibson, made it possible for current African-American players like James Blake, Donald Young and the Williams sisters to excel. I only hope the foundation Ashe and Gibson set is not only embraced but appreciated today.

I think the name “U.S. Open” is fitting for this tournament. “United” means togetherness and “States” is a place of being. “Open” implies inclusion and freedom to engage. Who better exemplified the latter than Arthur Ashe?

This started it all. The beautiful thing about sport is it brings people together. We temporarily relax our preconceived notions and root for the team or athlete. Wouldn't it be great to bottle that temporary cohesion and give doses to everyone, with the promise of making the temporary permanent?

If Ashe were alive today, I think he'd want that.

Unlike most athletes today, Ashe used his platform to plant the seeds of growth in society and sport. Ashe was a father, husband, mentor, activist, humanitarian, coach, scholar and author who served his country - and who also happened to play great tennis.

Inclusion is what Ashe fought for on and off the court. It's wonderful to see the seeds he planted 40 years ago being recognized as they continue to bloom today.

Dexter Rogers is a freelance writer from Fort Wayne.