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On This Date in Sports September 9, 1968: Arthur, King of the Courts

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.

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Arthur Ashe turned professional in 1969 and became the number-one ranked player in the world. He later went on to win the 1970 Australia Open and Wimbledon in 1975 before heel problems began affecting his career. In 1979, Arthur Ashe suffered a heart attack while hosting a tennis clinic. He underwent a quadruple bypass that ended his career as he continued to suffer cardiac episodes after the surgery. Eventually, Arthur Ashe underwent a second procedure in 1983, which cured his ailments. However, he received HIV-tainted blood during the surgery and was diagnosed with AIDS five years later. Arthur Ashe died in 1993 at the age of 49, spending his final years as an AIDS activist, seeking better health and education in urban communities. Four years after Ashe’s death, the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, which became home of the U.S. Open in 1978, opened a new stadium that became the largest tennis stadium in the world. The stadium would be named Arthur Ashe Stadium in his honor.