Citizen Ashe: The quiet heroism and triumph of a tennis champion

Confidence fueled Arthur Ashe’s success in tennis. If he was confident enough, he said, he could hit the ball backwards. In 1968, he had plenty of forward momentum, going two months without losing a match. At that year’s US Open, he defeated Tom Okker to become the first Black man to win a men’s grand slam singles title. Meanwhile, Ashe had been facing both external and internal pressure to speak out on civil rights. After growing up in the segregated South, he had been concerned about a violent backlash. But after winning the US Open, he was ready to become more vocal, according to a new documentary, Citizen Ashe, directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard.

In the film, Ashe’s brother Johnnie recalls his sibling saying, “I’m a champion now. People will listen to what I have to say. I’m the first Black man to win the US Open. I’m going to be sought out.”

Miller says Ashe’s prediction soon became true. “Literally a few days after he won, he was on Meet the Press,” he says. “He decided he finally could no longer stand on the sidelines … events in the spring and summer of 1968, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Robert F Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam protests, the sit-ins, everything happening in the country, it was finally time for him to speak out.”

Citizen Ashe will be screened at the Doc NYC film festival on 13 November before a wider release in December. Incorporating rare audio footage and photos of the tennis star, the film shows Ashe’s impact both on and off the court before his death at the age of 49 in 1993 from complications of Aids.

The film spotlights two of his grand slam wins at opposite ends of his career – at the US Open in 1968, and at Wimbledon seven years later, in 1975, when he stunned Jimmy Connors thanks to a gameplan devised on an envelope with a committee of friends. It also explores his activism, including in South Africa, where he challenged apartheid after learning that Nelson Mandela had been jailed for trying to vote. After his Aids diagnosis, he created a foundation dedicated to defeating the virus.

Throughout, there are interviews with some of the individuals who were closest to him – including his widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a producer on the film; and his brother, Johnnie.

“[The film] would not have happened if Jeanne was not on board,” Miller says. “She was on board fully. She made a commitment to the film,” helping him land conversations with players such as Charlie Pasarell (part of the committee that came up with the plan to beat Connors) and John McEnroe, who had a bend-but-don’t-break relationship when Ashe mentored the US Davis Cup team.

“Arthur, along with Jim Brown, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Bill Russell … was sort of a template for what many of today’s [stars], Colin Kaepernick, Serena and Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka, LeBron James, follow,” Pollard said. “What they’re doing now is not in a vacuum.”

That film looks at the formative moments of his early years in Richmond, Virginia. Ashe said that it was natural for Black children to question if they could ever thrive in a segregated society, and that any youngster with “more than a smattering of intelligence” would leave. In Ashe’s case, he did – first for St Louis to finish high school, and then for college at UCLA.

Richmond had sad memories for Ashe – he lost his mother when he was six. His father was a caretaker of a segregated playground, where young Arthur learned to play tennis and where he was discovered by a coach named Dr Robert Johnson – who also noticed the promise of Black tennis pioneer Althea Gibson.

The film shows just how momentous 1968 was for both Ashe and the US, balancing multiple threads. Ashe’s tennis career was taking off – he was the first Black man selected to the US Davis Cup team. He was also in the US military as a lieutenant stationed at West Point. His brother was serving too – in Vietnam. Johnnie Ashe volunteered for another tour of duty there so his brother would not have to go.

“It was a major sacrifice,” Pollard says. “You had to have a lot of love for your brother to do that.”

Arthur Ashe did go on a USO tour to Vietnam in which he encountered live fire and saw injured service members, all of which affected him.

“It sort of brought it home,” Johnnie Ashe says in the film. “I had done the right thing at the right time for the right reason.”

Meanwhile, Arthur Ashe was also wondering if the time was right to speak out on behalf of the civil rights movement. Black athletes such as Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Brown were advocating on behalf of civil rights; Dr Harry Edwards called upon Ashe to do the same. But there were complicating factors.

“Especially in the South, you did not want to make racial waves and put your life in danger,” Pollard says. “There was a type of entrenched segregation in America on certain issues as a Black person, particularly in the South. He knew the rules of the game. If you wanted to survive in America, you did not make waves. You did the right thing. That was what it meant to be Black at the time.”

However, Pollard says that Ashe’s “level of confidence was rising. He could speak up – not like Muhammad Ali or Bill Russell, he did it Arthur Ashe’s way. Go back to what Harry Edwards says [in the film] – African American people are not monolithic, they do not do things the same way … [Ashe’s activism had] just as powerful an impact.”

In March, Ashe delivered a speech on civil rights at the Church of the Redeemer in Washington DC, which got some pushback from the military brass. In April, he was driving across the George Washington Bridge when he learned from the radio that King had been assassinated. During the presidential campaign, he talked tennis with Democratic candidate Robert F Kennedy – then, in June, Kennedy was also assassinated. A few months later, Ashe was US Open champion and ready to speak out for causes he championed, from civil rights to education to ending apartheid.

“He was trying to change the playing field,” Miller said. “He was still a patriot. He was in the army and thought it was the right thing to do. He was proud of it, of his brother’s service. All of these things coalesce in the moment when he won the US Open – the first Black champion, the first American champion of the [modern] US Open … It gave him a platform to speak out.”

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