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Stamp vignette on medical science| Volume 98, ISSUE 3, P492-493, March 2023

Arthur Ashe, Jr: Tennis Star and AIDS and Urban Health Activist

      Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr, was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia, and began playing tennis before his 7th birthday. He was taught to read at 4 years of age by his mother Mattie and became an avid reader and a straight-A student. Unfortunately, his mother died of complications from pre-eclampsia when he was 7 years old. Arthur and his younger brother Johnnie were raised by their father, Arthur Ashe, Sr (1920-1989), who worked as a caretaker for the Richmond recreation department.
      A local university student and part-time tennis coach, Ronald Charity (1929-1991), spotted Ashe’s athletic talent and taught him tennis strokes and proper form. When Ashe was 10 years old, Charity introduced him to Dr Robert Walter Johnson (1899-1971), who became his mentor and lifelong coach. Dr Johnson also coached Althea Gibson (1927-2003), who in 1956 became the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam title.
      At age 15, Arthur was the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ tennis championships. He spent his senior year of high school in St. Louis, Missouri, in order to play against stronger opponents than could be found in Richmond, and 2 years later he was mentioned in Sports Illustrated magazine as a promising “Face in the Crowd.” Graduating as valedictorian of his high school class, he received a full scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which had one of the most outstanding college tennis programs in the country.
      While at UCLA, Ashe became the first Black member of the US Davis Cup tournament team in 1963 and played on its team for years. Despite participating in many tennis tournaments while a student – enough to be ranked in the top 3 US men’s tennis players in 1965 – he continued with excellent grades and graduated with a degree in Business Administration from UCLA in 1966. This was followed by 2 years in the US Army, where he worked as a data processor at West Point, headed the United States Military Academy’s tennis program, and continued to participate in major tennis tournaments.
      Ashe won the US Open in 1968, his first major tournament victory, but could not accept the prize money of $14,000 because he was still an amateur player; therefore, the prize money went to the runner-up. To date he has been the only Black man to win the US Open. (Francis Tiafoe reached the US Open semi-finals in 2022 but was defeated by Carlos Alcaraz Garfia from Spain.)
      After changing his status from amateur to professional, Ashe applied for a visa in 1969 to travel to South Africa to compete in the South African Open. However, his application was refused by the South African government due to apartheid rules. While he was eventually allowed into South Africa, and visited 4 times in the early 1970s, his complaints about his treatment by South African officials and White citizens contributed to the expulsion of the country from the International Lawn Tennis Federation.
      Arthur Ashe won the Australian Open in 1970, which led to considerable international publicity. He supported the creation of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 and became the ATP President 2 years later. In 1975, Ashe won the Wimbledon singles title when he beat Jimmy Connors in 4 sets. The following year he was ranked number 2 in the world by the ATP, his highest ATP ranking.
      In 1977, Arthur married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy (born 1951), whom he met at a United Negro College Fund (UNCF) event. The couple subsequently adopted a daughter in 1986, whom they named Camera because of her mother’s occupation.
      At age 36, Ashe had a heart attack during a tennis clinic in New York and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in December 1979. Recurrence of symptoms after the surgery forced his retirement from tennis in 1980 with an outstanding lifetime record of 818 wins and 260 losses. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island in 1985.
      Ashe required a second bypass surgery in 1983, and it is believed that during this procedure he received a blood transfusion contaminated by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 after developing neuropathy from toxoplasmosis.
      Following his retirement from tennis, Ashe taught a course titled “The Black Athlete in Contemporary Society” at Florida Memorial College, a historically Black university in Miami Gardens, Florida. He had learned that little had been written about the history of Black Americans in sports and proceeded to write a 3-volume book “A Hard Road to Glory,” which was published in 1988.
      As a member of a 31-person delegation to South Africa in 1991, Ashe noted the political changes in the country since the 1970s, as the apartheid era was ending and the country was moving toward integration. At an event in New York, he met Nelson Mandela, who had been incarcerated for 27 years by the South African government and was finally released in 1990. Mandela stated during his imprisonment that Ashe was the first person he wanted to talk to after getting out of prison, after reading so much about the tennis star.
      In April 1992, since the newspaper USA Today was planning to go public about Ashe’s diagnosis of AIDS, he and his wife held a press conference and announced the diagnosis. He became active in efforts to raise more funding for AIDS research, emphasizing the disease was a major problem all over the world. That same year, Ashe was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. He founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health and also finished his memoir, “Days of Grace” only a few months before his death.
      Arthur Ashe died February 6, 1993, from an AIDS related pneumonia, at age 49. He was the first person to lay in state at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion since Confederate General Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War. More than 5,000 mourners lined up to walk past his casket while the funeral was attended by nearly 6,000 people, including the Virginia governor and New York City mayor. His funeral service was conducted by Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and United Nations Ambassador, who had officiated Ashe’s wedding in 1977.
      A statue of Arthur Ashe was dedicated on Monument Avenue in Richmond. The following year, the USTA announced that the main stadium at USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, would be named the Arthur Ashe Stadium. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
      The United States Postal Service issued an Arthur Ashe commemorative postage stamp (Scott #3936) on August 27, 2005, coinciding with the beginning of the US Open that year.

      Potential Competing Interests

      The authors report no potential competing interests.