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Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) was one of the most exceptional tennis players in the history of the sport.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Ashe served in the United States Army and had a good early amateur career.
By the end of his life in 1993, Ashe was recognized not only for his tennis, but also for his political campaigns on behalf of racial equality in the United States, Haiti, and South Africa. Also, as a victim of AIDS, Ashe campaigned for AIDS research near the end of his life.
When Ashe turned professional in 1969, he was an African American player in a sport completely dominated by whites.
At the peak of his career in the 1970s, Ashe won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and doubles titles at the French and Australian Opens.
Interestingly, Ashe encouraged young blacks not to waste their energies on sports.
Instead, he recommended channeling energy into academic and vocation-related studies.
His recommendation seems appropriate to this day.
While it is the case that sports can provide positive role models and encourage hard work and discipline, it is also the case that many young athletes dream unrealistically of professional careers at the exclusion of school.
The odds of successfully making a professional league are statistically next to impossible.
Despite his own success, Ashe recognized this.
Mindful of racism in American society, Ashe always thought of his own career in terms of the general experience of blacks in America.
He wrote several books recounting these ideas.
Ashe’s historical writing on the history of African Americans in sport spawned a multimedia series, A Hard Road to Glory.
Today, while a few more blacks have been successful in sports traditionally dominated by whites, it is still the case that whites dominate.
The recent successes of athletes like the Williams sisters in tennis and Tiger Woods in golf sometimes conceal the fact that these sports are still predominantly white.
According to Ashe’s thinking, it would be a mistake to take one role model, such as Tiger Woods, and from that conclude that race problems in sport no longer exist.
Like any institution, race relations in sport should be thought of for their long-term trends, not individual exceptions.
Arthur Ashe contracted the HIV virus through a blood transfusion and died of AIDS in 1993, aged 50.
While since his death he has become revered and respected, in the 1980s near the end of his life he was unpopular for his ideas.
However, his combination of political campaigning and athletic prowess has made him a revered figure in American history.