Forty years ago today, Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors on Centre Court in the 1975 Wimbledon final to become the first African-American man to win the Men's Singles title. But it was more than a title that Ashe earned that day:
"The victory helped Ashe, who grew up in segregated Richmond excluded from many of the city's courts, to become a global figure remembered as much for his personal grace and his humanitarian work as his tennis game.
While his impact off the court may have been the same regardless of the outcome, a Wimbledon title — still one of the great prizes in all of sports — elevated his stature. It helped create the legacy of a man known for his generosity, honesty and loyalty; a man whose statue, a tribute to a black man who fought for education, peace and empowerment, stands among Confederate generals on Monument Avenue in his hometown."
The match itself was more notable for Ashe's tactics and execution than for his athleticism and skills. Connors came into Wimbledon having lost just four of 103 matches played in 1974 while winning three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. More importantly, Connors had enjoyed great success against the game's "big hitters," which didn't bode well for Ashe. But Ashe had the foresight to transform his game against Connors, and he amazed everyone with his ability to adapt.
"It wasn't that Ashe merely defeated Connors; he outwitted him.
Ashe concluded that his powerful serve-and-volley game couldn't beat Connors, the possessor of a fierce two-handed backhand. So Ashe resorted to a series of lobs, chips, dinks and other soft-paced shots that defused Connors' power and blew his mind.
Ashe's victory was a byproduct of stratagem, smarts and an unflappable cool, even as Connors charged back toward the end.
The way he won was as significant as the victory itself."
Peter Bodo, the author of "Ashe vs Connors: Wimbledon 1975: Tennis That Went Beyond Centre Court," describes Ashe's approach to the match as "cool, focused and prepared," just as it was whenever he faced challenges in his life. That description makes me think that Arthur Ashe would have been a perfect player for Coach Wooden.
The BBC has created a documentary to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Arthur Ashe's Wimbledon victory. It's entitled "Arthur Ashe: More Than a Champion." I've embedded it below, and I encourage everyone to watch it. In particular, for those like me who never had the pleasure of watching Ashe play, it's wonderful to see his elegance on the court, just as it's enlightening to hear his thoughtful comments about tennis and society. If, as the documentary claims, Ashe was motivated to attend UCLA to become the Jackie Robinson of the tennis world, then it's certainly true that Ashe had the ideal demeanor to deal with the challenges he would face in his life and career.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/4-dJuB60aLU" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
For those who are interested in reading about the finer details of Ashe's victory over Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final, there's a thorough retelling of the events surrounding the match at the ATP World Tour website. Ashe's hometown newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has two interesting articles. The first looks at the social and cultural impact of Ashe's victory on Wimbledon's Centre Court; the second examines the troubled relationship between Ashe and Connors.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch also has a remarkable Arthur Ashe photo gallery.
Although we commemorate Arthur Ashe's victory at Wimbledon forty years ago, it's important to remember that what makes Arthur Ashe a great Bruin and a great American doesn't rest on what he did on a tennis court. His character, his vision, and his courage are what matter foremost. Or, to paraphrase Coach Wooden, what Arthur Ashe was as a person is far more important than what he was as a tennis player.