QUEENS, N.Y. - In 1968, the four prominient tennis majors all became open to both professional and amateur players. However, it took one extra year for a pro to win the U.S. Open for the first time, as Arthur Ashe, a 25-year-old lieutenant in the Army beat Tom Okker of the Netherlands in the final to win his first Grand Slam championship.
Ashe's win was much more than just a personal achievement. By besting the first field featuring professionals, Ashe became the first African-American to win any of the Grand Slam championships. He had become a pioneer of his race the same summer that Martin Luther King had been killed.
Ashe was always well aware of his race and appreciative of what minorities had to go through for equal acceptance. Growing up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, Ashe moved to St. Louis so he wouldn't have to travel as far to play white players. As his fame grew, no doubt by his Open win, he became a prominient figure in race relations, meeting with president Reagan and other world leaders. Ashe was even arrested twice, once for protesting Apartheid outside South Africa's embassy, and once for for protesting recent crackdowns on Haitian refugees.
But it was his end-of-life battle with AIDS that made Ashe most famous of all. He contracted the disease during a 1982 heart surgery, then lived privately with the disease for a decade. It wasn't until 1992, when his appearance started to become noticibly frail, that Ashe came forward and admitted he had AIDS. For the last year of his life, Ashe dedicated himself to raising funds and awareness for AIDS, doing as much or more for that cause as he did for race relations in his earlier life.
Ashe died in 1993, just 9 months after publically revealing his disease. When he died, his body laid in state in the governor's mansion in Richmond, an honor that hadn't been bestowed on anybody in Virginia since Stonewall Jackson. He also had a statue of him place on Monument Avenue in Richmond, a place normally reserved for heroes of the Confederacy. Nationally, he was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the main stadium at the U.S. Open, where all final matches are held, is called Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It's possible that Ashe could have had as much impact on the world as he did even if he hadn't been famous as a tennis star. But there's no doubt that his signature victory at the 1968 U.S. Open helped open some doors and make many of his later contributions possible.