“Champions are people who want to leave their sport better than they found it” – Arthur Ashe
This month the US Open will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tennis venue.
So it’s a good time to reflect on the remarkable life and career of the player it honours by watching Citizen Ashe, a feature documentary directed by Emmy winners Rex Miller and Samuel D. Pollard.
Since September, Citizen Ashe has travelled the film festival circuit. In December, it screened in New York and LA cinemas for a day to ensure eligibility for Oscar nominations which, surprisingly, didn’t eventuate.
After airing on CNN in June, it began streaming on HBO Max.
It must be mentioned that some festival publicity blurbs for the documentary claim that Ashe was “the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam singles title”. Not so. It was Althea Gibson who won the singles title at Roland Garros in 1956, 12 years before Ashe’s victory at the US Open. She ended her career with another five singles Grand Slams and six women’s and mixed Slam titles.
The documentary itself makes no such error.
Citizen Ashe covers a lot of its subject’s life in 97 minutes. But although Ashe won three Grand Slam singles titles, the documentary omits his Australian Open victory to focus on his first – the 1968 US Open – and last – Wimbledon in 1975.
Ashe grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where his father was a caretaker for a Black playground. The position came with a house right on the playground, and “four tennis courts were just 10 yards away”.
After the racial segregation of the South, by taking up a scholarship to UCLA, Ashe expanded his opportunities and experiences.
In California, his race did not bar him from any tournament, and by the mid-60s was he was a champion player. The footage of his matches reveals a weapon in his versatile backhand and a serve powerful and accurate. It’s easy to imagine how fast and unreturnable his serve would have been with modern racquet technology.
The documentary lets us see how much things have changed, the wooden racquets and white balls, and how little, through the tantrums of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. At one point, Connors tells an interviewer, “I do what I want” – the exact words Nick Kyrgios offered at a Wimbledon press conference this year.
McEnroe appears several times, as the insightful commentator he now is, and as the brilliant brat he was.
Ashe was brought up never to lose his temper and so he “internalised things”. As Davis Cup Captain he struggled to deal with McEnroe’s tantrums at the same time wishing he could do the same.
“McEnroe had the emotional freedom to be a bad boy. I never had that emotional freedom…So when I see John going off half-cocked, I’m very irritated at him and I’m envious because I would like to do that same thing. But I don’t feel I have that luxury.”
Much of the film’s narration comes from interviews Ashe had given over the years and from the eloquent reminiscing of those who knew him best, his younger brother Johnnie and his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.
There are cameos from Venus and Serena Williams and Billie Jean King. When Ashe and King got to do the Wimbledon Champion’s dance in 1975, referring to her perm, King joked, “we both have afros but yours is real”.
In 1973, Ashe decided to play in South Africa’s National Championships. His decision divided his supporters. In Ellis Park, Johannesburg, the equivalent of Forest Hills, Blacks were not allowed to play and audiences were segregated.
Ashe replied to his critics, “You have to start somewhere and it would at least be a crack in an apartheid wall down there if I did play.”
He took a stand and insisted he would only play if the audience was mixed.
He dedicated so much time in Johannesburg teaching local children how to play that he neglected his own practice. Disappointingly, he lost the final to his least favourite opponent Jimmy Connors.
“I certainly loved to watch him play. But I was never crazy about his personality. He was brash, brusque, ill-mannered; he had this arrogance about him fuelled by the dominance of his mother.”
As President of the ATP, then a player union, Ashe couldn’t understand why Connors, from blue collar Illinois, didn’t want to join. He was also appalled that Connors refused to play Davis Cup. After he was quoted calling Connors “unpatriotic”, he found himself sued for $5 million for defamation…
…Which led to perhaps the strangest situation surrounding a Grand Slam final as the litigants faced each other on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
At 31, Ashe had never beaten No. 1 seed Connors, who had lost only four matches that year.
Citizen Ashe reveals that the brilliant tactics Ashe took into the final were prepared the night before, over dinner at the Playboy Club, and written on an envelope.
– Take the speed off the ball
– Serve wide in the deuce court and have the whole court to volley
– Use the lob because Connors closes fast
The plan worked easily in the first two sets: with Ashe taking them 1 and 1. But Connors worked his way back in, taking the third. During sit-downs in the fourth and final set, Ashe could be seen referring to the instructions on that envelope.
A montage of headlines shows the reaction to his victory – “Ashe Smashes Connors”, “Ashe Humiliates Connors” and, most brutally, from The New York Times, “Ashe Stabs Connors in Cold Blood”.
The documentary deals sensitively with the serious health issues he faced, from a heart condition requiring two coronary bypasses, which ended his tennis career in 1979; to explorative brain surgery and most seriously, HIV/AIDs which claimed his life at 49.
Of all the extraordinary vision in the film, the most memorable is the press conference Ashe called to announce his positive status, to pre-empt USA Today outing him. For once, his calm demeanour faltered. When he got to the part in his prepared statement about the impact on his daughter, Jeanne stepped in to read it for him.
His diagnosis led him to establish the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. The Foundation raised funds to support and advocate for those suffering from what was an irrepressible disease.
For those familiar with Ashe’s era, you will remember his tennis, you will remember his activism, but all the fine details will come flooding back.
For more recent tennis fans who know Ashe as a name on an honour board, you will discover why that name was bestowed on the main stadium of a Grand Slam.
But you really don’t need an interest in tennis to appreciate the remarkable story of Arthur Ashe.
Title photo of Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon 1975 by PA Images