But the historic match symbolized the tension Ashe faced throughout his career; the weight of the tennis world’s expectation, the racism he faced as a black athlete, and his humanitarian work.
“I think I can withstand almost anything. As an African-American athlete, I’ve experienced racism as a tennis player way back,” Ashe said in an interview in the documentary. “I’ve played extraordinary matches under incredible conditions, but Wimbledon has tied my whole life together.”
“To think that he (Ashe) could perform on the tennis court as he did, and then choose to be an activist as he was in ways that many black players would not have been comfortable with given the time. .. he was just very different,” Washington tells DailyExpertNews Sport.
‘There just weren’t many black players’
“It was great to be compared to him, but since I turned pro in 1989 and, you know, he won grand slams in the ’60s and ’70s, let me tell you the glaring, obvious fact. seeing that there just isn’t a lot of black players out there since he last won his last major,” he says.
Like Washington, Ashe started playing tennis at a young age.
As his tennis skills improved, Ashe had to go a step further in the quality of the opponents he faced. However, his chances were hampered by segregation. For example, he was often shunned by the neighboring Byrd Park youth tournament because the public tennis courts were “whites only.”
‘All strength and no brains’
As Ashe gained stature in the tennis world, his reluctance to speak out on social issues affecting black communities in the US caused friction between himself and members of the civil rights movement.
“All around me I saw these athletes stepping forward to claim civil rights. But I was still mixed up,” Ashe said in an interview in the film. “There were really times when I felt like maybe I was a coward for not doing certain things, by not joining this protest or whatever.”
Early in his career, Ashe pushed the line between remaining politically neutral to pacify his white colleagues and publicly denouncing the racism of black athletes.
“I feel confusion about what an athlete should be, especially in an African-American context. Myths still exist in the world about black athletes because we tend to do disproportionately well in athletics,” Ashe adds. ready. “Some people think we’re all muscular and have no brains. And I like to fight the myth.”
About Ashe’s observation, Washington says, “That myth has continued, racism has continued, discrimination has continued.
“I can definitely see how Arthur would feel like that. And the ironic thing is he was the most intellectual person on the tour at the time.”
A turning point
In 1968, after Ashe graduated from UCLA and served in the United States military, the American political landscape was turned upside down.
Two figureheads of the African American equality movement – civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and politician Robert F. Kennedy – were assassinated two months apart.
About King’s murder, Ashe said: “I was very angry. I also felt a little helpless. Things would be different now because, I mean, he was seen as our knight in shining armor.
“As a black American, I felt an urgency that I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Ashe’s speech marked a turning point in his tennis career. Instead of his platform preventing him from taking a stance on political issues, he started using it as a vehicle for social change.
‘Calm and confident decision’
“A lot of people were against him, but he went anyway, which you just show, you know, the power to do what’s right. The power to say, follow your conscience and just do the right thing,” Washington says. .
He married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe in 1977 and his daughter Camera was born in December 1986.
After his 1980 retirement from competitive tennis and his subsequent five-year captaincy with the United States Davis Cup team, Ashe forged a blueprint for athlete activism.
He had the ability to facilitate nuanced discussions between opposing sides of the political spectrum, a skill Washington said was “a very special gift.”
“His behavior reminds me a bit of Nelson Mandela,” Washington added. “That’s why that’s one of the reasons he was able to do the things he could do, achieve the things he could achieve.
“It’s very powerful when you have a very calm and confident decision.”
“Arthur would go in, and he would make statements that if you wiped out the gentility, the niceness, the intelligence, the composure, his statement would be more militant than mine,” Edwards, the civil rights activist and professor of sociology, said in an interview. in the documentary.
“To this day we haven’t found another person who could talk to both sides of the barricades, and that bridge became so critical and crucial,” Edwards added.
Inspiring a generation of athletes
“What I don’t want is, when all is said and done, to be thought of as… or remembered as a great tennis player. I mean, that’s not contributing to society,” Ashe said in an interview in the documentary. .
Washington says Ashe “made the sort of roadmap” for modern athlete activism.
“Not everyone can be an Arthur Ashe. Not everyone can be a Nelson Mandela…these are giants of the activism world,” Washington says. “I don’t think there’s ever been a tennis player as active and vocal as him.”