He died of AIDS. But he was famous not so much for the way he died, but for the way he lived his life.
He was born in Richmond, Va. in 1943, and suffered an early tragedy when he was six years old and his mother died of heart complications during routine surgery. His salvation came when he picked up a tennis racket. He played for his high school and quickly became a local star. But it was hard for him to find suitably talented opponents, because he was not allowed to play on many of the Virginia tennis courts, so he was forced to travel long distances in order to find competitive players.
He was spotted by a tennis pro and invited to come play with his team in St. Louis, and from there he earned a scholarship to UCLA. In 1965 he won the NCAA singles title (won six years later by Jimmy Connors and seven years after that by John McEnroe) and helped the UCLA team win the NCAA tennis championship. In the meantime, he was featured in Sports Illustrated, and became the first black player ever to play for the United States Davis Club team. He also joined a fraternity at UCLA and took part in the UCLA Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC). He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1966 and served in the army for two years, stationed at West Point where he continued to play tennis.
In 1968 he broke into the big time, winning the U.S. Amateur championship, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon, and then going on to take the U. S. Open in New York. He was a top-ranked player for the next ten years, winning the Australian Open in 1970 and beating the younger Jimmy Connors in 1975 to take the crown at Wimbledon and reach the ultimate ranking of #1 in the world.
In 1979 he suffered a heart attack, underwent heart bypass surgery, and retired from professional tennis. He nevertheless remained active in the game. He did tennis commentary for ABC Sports; he was a motivating factor in the professional tennis players association; and as a result of being denied entry into South Africa earlier in his career, he took part in the anti-apartheid movement, getting arrested during a protest outside the South African embassy in Washington DC in 1983. He was also arrested outside the White House in 1992 for protesting the crackdown against Haitian refugees.
In 1983 he had a second bypass surgery. A few years later he fell ill, and discovered he had apparently contracted the HIV virus from infected blood during the transfusions he received in the hospital. He and his wife kept his illness private until 1992, when his obvious physical deterioration forced him to go public with the disease. In the last year of his life he became a spokesman for AIDS sufferers and he founded his Institute for Urban Health to address inadequate health care delivery to inner city populations.
Tennis great Arthur Ashe died in February 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia. His inspiring autobiography, called Days of Grace, was published posthumously and became an international bestseller.
In 1985, Arthur Ashe was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1993 President Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The city of Richmond, Virginia, has honored Ashe with a statue, and also named an athletic center for him. UCLA built a health center named in his honor, the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center.
But his most famous legacy will be center stage this weekend. At 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 11, two women -- the winners of Saturday night's semifinals -- will enter the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium and battle for the championship title in the rain-delayed U. S. Open.
Then on Monday, also starting at 4 p.m., the winner of the Federer vs. Djokovic semifinals, and the victor of the Nadal vs. Murray match, will duke it out in the tennis legend's stadium for the 2011 men's championship.