Citizen Ashe: The Silent Heroism and Triumph of a Tennis Champion | Tennis

Cinfidelity fueled Arthur Ashe’s success in tennis. If he had enough confidence, he could hit the ball back. In 1968 he had a lot of forward momentum and went 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 title. Meanwhile, Ashe had faced both external and internal pressures to speak out on civil rights. Growing up in the segregated South, he was concerned about a violent response. But after winning the US Open, he was poised to get 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’ll be wanted.”

Miller says Ashe’s prediction soon came true. “Literally a few days after he won, he was on Meet the Press,” he says. “He decided he could finally no longer sit on the sidelines… events of the spring and summer of 1968, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, the protests in Vietnam, the sit- ins, everything that was 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 November 13 and will be released more widely in December. Featuring rare audio 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 from AIDS.

The film highlights two of his grand slam victories on either side 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 game plan devised on an envelope by a committee of friends. It also examines 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 founded a foundation dedicated to defeating the virus.

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

“[The film] wouldn’t have happened if Jeanne wasn’t on board,” Miller says. “She was fully on board. She made a commitment to the movie,” which allowed him to have conversations with players like Charlie Pasarell (part of the committee that came up with the plan to defeat Connors) and John McEnroe, who bowed but didn’t break off relationship when Ashe left the American Davis. Cup team supervised.

“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 isn’t in a vacuum.”

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

Richmond had sad memories of Ashe – he lost his mother when he was six. His father was a manager 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 noted the promise of black tennis pioneer Althea Gibson.

The film shows how important 1968 was to both Ashe and the US, balancing multiple threads. Ashe’s tennis career took off – he was the first black man to be selected for the US Davis Cup team. He was also in the United States Army as a lieutenant stationed at West Point. His brother also served – in Vietnam. Johnnie Ashe volunteered for another draft there so his brother wouldn’t have to go.

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

Arthur Ashe went on a USO tour to Vietnam, where he encountered live fire and wounded soldiers, all of whom hit him.

“It kind 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 also wondered if the time was right to speak out on behalf of the civil rights movement. Black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Brown advocated civil rights; dr. Harry Edwards called on Ashe to do the same. But there were complicating factors.

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

Pollard, however, says Ashe’s confidence grew. He could open his mouth—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 gave a civil rights speech at the Church of the Redeemer in Washington DC, which faced some opposition from the military. In April, he was driving over the George Washington Bridge when he heard over the radio that King had been murdered. During the presidential campaign, he spoke about tennis with Democratic candidate Robert F Kennedy — and Kennedy was also assassinated in June. A few months later, Ashe was a US Open champion and ready to speak out for the 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 military and thought it was the right thing to do. He was proud of his brother’s service. All these things come together the moment 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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