Arthur Ashe made history at the West Side Tennis Club in Forrest Hills, New York, becoming the first black man to win a tennis major championship. Ashe needs five sets to beat Tom Okker from The Netherlands (14-12, 5-7, 6-3. 3-6, 6-3) at the first U.S. Open, which had previously been called the U.S. Nationals and closed to professionals before the start of the open era.
Arthur Ashe Jr. was born in Richmond, Virginia, on July 10, 1943. Ashe’s father had worked as a caretaker for the Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation, living in a small cottage at a local park. The park had four tennis courts, where Ashe began playing at the age of seven. His skills on the court caught the eye of Ron Charity, a local professional and tennis instructor. Charity introduced Arthur Ashe to Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, who had coached Althea Gibson.
Banned from competing against white children, Arthur Ashe moved to St. Louis before his senior year in high school to continue building his tennis career without the bonds of segregation in Virginia. After becoming the first African-American to win the National Junior Indoor Tennis Championship, Ashe earned a scholarship to UCLA. After college, Arthur Ashe enlisted in the Army and helped run the tennis program at West Point while still competing in tournaments as an Amateur.
The sport of tennis was forever changed in 1968, when the four major tournaments exclusively for amateurs began allowing professionals to compete, starting the open era. The move was made at the behest of British Officials, who protested over the backdoor payments made to cover “expenses.”
The final major in the first year of the open era was the U.S. Open, played at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills in New York’s borough of Queens. While Virginia Wade of England beat Billie Jean King in straight sets (6-4, 6-2) to complete the Grand Slam, the story on the men’s side tournament was Arthur Ashe. A rising star on the tour, Ashe had previously reached the finals of the Australian Championships, losing to home crowd’s favorite Roy Emerson. Still in the Army, Ashe, on the Davis team, maintained his amateur status and entered the U.S. Open after winning the U.S. Amateur Championship. After cruising through the first four rounds without losing a set, Ashe defeated Cliff Drysdale of South Africa 8-10, 6-3, 9-4, 6-4 to reach the semifinals, where he beat fellow American Clark Graebner 4-6, 8-6, 7-5, 6-2 for a berth in the finals.
The first finals of the open era were an absolute thriller as #5 seed Arthur Ashe and #8 Tom Okker of the Netherlands went the full five sets. Ashe won a marathon first set 14-12. Okker rebounded to take the second set 7-5. The two would battle back and forth all day, with Ashe taking the third set 6-3 and Okker taking the fourth by the same score. In the final set to decide the championship, Ashe took control and won 6-3, becoming the first black man to win a major title.