Timing is everything in tennis.
Timing can be everything in a life as well. In 1947, Arthur Ashe Sr. took a job as caretaker of Brook Field Park, the largest park for black people in Richmond, Va. It was one of the few places in that deeply segregated city where a black child like Ashe’s skinny 4-year-old son, Arthur Jr., would have been allowed anywhere near a tennis court. The Ashes lived in the park, just a few steps from the courts where Arthur Jr. would take the swings that launched one of the most storied careers in the sport.
Timing is a factor, too, in the launch this week of Arthur Ashe: A Life, the first definitive biography of the athlete, author, and civil rights and AIDS activist.
The new book’s author, historian and St. Petersburg resident Raymond Arsenault, says, "It’s the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open, and Arthur, of course, won the first one. He would have turned 75 in July, and it’s 25 years since his death.
"The largest tennis venue in the world is named after him," Arsenault says. "He hasn’t been forgotten, but I want to introduce him to a new generation and put him in context."
That he does. The biography covers Ashe’s tennis career in meticulous detail, from his play in blacks-only tournaments around the South as a teenager through his breakout years at the University of California, Los Angeles and on to his victories around the globe as a cool and disciplined professional, and his role in the changing nature of tennis as a sport and business in the 1980s and ’90s.
But that’s only part of what makes him significant, Arsenault says. "Ashe is a major figure of the 20th century. He’s an athletic figure like no other, but he was also a public intellectual." Ashe was an author, an activist for civil rights and against South African apartheid, a crusader for education, a broadcaster, a businessman and, in the last years of his brief life — he died at age 49 after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion after open-heart surgery — an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness in a time when the disease was regarded as an unmentionable stigma.
Arsenault’s book gracefully weaves together all those complex strands, along with Ashe’s complicated personal life as a black man who spent much of his life breaking barriers in a very white tennis world. Despite many deep and enduring friendships, Arsenault says, Ashe often "was so alone. People say he was the Jackie Robinson of tennis, and he was. But there was no Willie Mays, no Hank Aaron. Just him."
Chatting in his book- and memorabilia-stuffed office on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Arsenault says that placing Ashe within all that rich context was a daunting task. "This was a 9-year project. If I had known, I might not have started. I actually walked away from it for a year" after his parents died. "This story is so sad, and I know how it’s going to end. I knew he and Jeanne would adopt this precious little girl, and she’d be 6 years old and then he’d die."
But he walked back. The result is a 767-page book based on more than 150 interviews, an "enormous paper trail" (including Ashe’s own four books and archives at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, UCLA and elsewhere) and extensive access to Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and other family and friends.
Intensive research has been part of Arsenault’s life work. He is the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at USFSP, where he has been on the faculty for 39 years and is the co-founder of the Florida studies program. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton and his master’s and doctorate at Brandeis University.
At 70, Arsenault is a nationally renowned civil rights historian whose earlier books include Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice and The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America. Freedom Riders was the basis for a 2010 PBS American Experience documentary of the same title, which won three Emmys and a George Peabody Award.
Arsenault lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Kathy, who retired as the dean of USFSP’s library. They have two daughters, Amelia, a college professor, and Anne, a lawyer; and a grandson, Lincoln.
The inspiration for the Ashe biography, Arsenault says, goes back a long way. "The book is dedicated to one of my two best friends in college, Jim Horton. Back then he was a dead ringer for Ashe. They were born the same year, and Jim looked just like him.
"He was my tennis partner — that’s how I got initiated into the cult of Ashe. All the graduate students (at Brandeis) played tennis. We would have finished our dissertations five years earlier if we hadn’t played so much tennis."
Horton’s resemblance to Ashe was so strong that at one tournament they attended he signed autographs for fans who thought he was the famous player.
"They walked away and looked at the autographs and said, ‘That doesn’t say Arthur Ashe!’ " Arsenault recalls. Horton, who became a professor of history and American studies at George Washington University, died in 2017.
Arsenault’s admiration for one of the superstars of tennis shows in the book’s in-depth depiction of Ashe’s style of play. "He’s this angelic assassin. There was that joy for the game he never lost. He weighed 155 pounds and had the hardest serve in tennis. How does that happen?"
Among many other accomplishments documented in the book, Ashe was the Wimbledon champion in 1975, and, after heart surgery took him out of professional competition, he was named captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1981 and led them to two victories.
Another thread that led Arsenault to Ashe was that "I was interested in sports history. It’s the kind of thing you can teach after you get tenure."
Attitudes toward Ashe were an example of "what we call romantic racialism," the notion that some black athletes and entertainers are especially gifted — and should use that gift to entertain whites. "Not only are they supposed to suffer oppression, but they’re not supposed to make whites feel guilty about it."
Arsenault’s deep interest in civil rights history was, of course, another link. In the biography, he juxtaposes Ashe’s career and personal life with historic events. In 1963, the year Ashe became the first black player chosen for the U.S. Davis Cup team, Alabama governor George Wallace pledged to defend "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever." Ashe’s landmark victory in Davis Cup play a few months later happened on the same day Ku Klux Klan members bombed a church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four black girls.
Early in his career, Ashe avoided political comment — "His father told him, stay away from that mess," Arsenault says. But 1968 was not only the year Ashe won the U.S. Open; it was also the year he became an activist.
"The assassinations were what pushed him into activism," Arsenault says of the deaths that year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. Ashe had corresponded with King and met Kennedy, and he admired both men and was nurturing budding relationships with both of them.
Arsenault recounts in the book Ashe’s long crusade against the system of apartheid in South Africa, which led to his friendship with the nation’s eventual leader Nelson Mandela.
"He became very close to Mandela. When Mandela came to the United State, they asked him, who do you want to meet? He said, Arthur Ashe.
"Mandela embraced him, and Ashe went to South Africa and spent time with him. Like Mandela, Ashe was all about reconciliation, not holding grudges."
Ashe’s activism, Arsenault says, was always measured rather than fiery. "He always understood that his way was not the only way. He was willing to change his mind. Like about South Africa — for so long, he was for engagement. But then he realized that isolation (such as boycotts) would be more effective in making the change."
Ashe’s involvement in such causes often inspired others. When Ashe wanted to play tennis in South Africa to challenge apartheid, Arsenault says, "Cliff Drysdale, the white South African player, who was opposed to apartheid, told Arthur, ‘They won’t have you.’ It took him four years to get a visa, but they finally let him in."
For the book, Arsenault interviewed Drysdale, who became a tennis commentator for ESPN, about a video he was asked to do about Ashe. "He said, ‘I had to turn them down because I can’t keep my composure. He changed my life.’ He was sitting in the Waldorf Astoria telling me this and crying." Telling the story, Arsenault tears up himself.
"Even during the horrific years with AIDS, he had such serenity," Arsenault says. "He wrote that he never lost a night’s sleep over it. Can you imagine?
"Even during that part of his life, he was so generous, so selfless. So much of Arthur’s influence came after his death. The courageous way he faced AIDS and death kicked it up to a whole other level."
This week, Arsenault will be at the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y. It’s just part of the promotion for the book. "I thought I was done," he says, but he’s been giving interviews and writing essays almost nonstop.
At the Open, he’ll see many of the people he interviewed for the book. He was able to speak to almost everyone he wanted to, he says, except Billie Jean King, who won the women’s singles at the Open the same year Ashe won the men’s — two trailblazers on the courts.
Ashe died in 1993, long before Arsenault began work on the biography. "I never met him. I saw him play twice. Maybe it helped me to have a little bit of detachment.
"But you can’t pretend you feel the same about Bull Connor as you do about John Lewis. A figure like Ashe soars above the rest of us."
What, he’s asked, if Ashe had lived?
"He’d be the same age as Joe Biden. He’d be in the thick of it.
"And he would take a knee," Arsenault says with conviction.
"Arthur was the antithesis of Trumpism. He hated bullies. I think Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James are kind of Ashe-like, in a sense. They’ve been very respectful, not emotional.
"He’d be with them in solidarity and spirit."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.