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Arthur Ashe

The Greatest Burden

By 1979 Ashe still wasn't ready to give up tennis. He played thirteen tournaments but reached the finals in only two. Then, on July 30, a tremendous pain in his chest woke the athlete from a sound sleep. Within an hour, the pain would recur twice. Each time it subsided he went back to sleep. The next day, Ashe gave two tennis clinics in New York and while signing autographs, was struck again. Arthur Ashe had had a heart attack. In December he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery. He would never play tennis again.

But Ashe was optimistic and tried to get back into competition shape. It was not to be. On April 16, 1980, Ashe announced his retirement from competitive tennis. Yet he remained actively involved in the sport. That year he was made captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, whose members included the mercurial John McEnroe, Peter Fleming, and Vitas Gerulaitis, and led the team to victory in 1981 and 1982. He worked as a sports commentator for ABC and HBO television, gave innumerable clinics to inner city children, wrote articles and books on the sport, made a tennis video, and in 1985 was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.

In 1983, Ashe underwent a second bypass operation. Weak from the procedure, he was given a blood transfusion to try to bolster his strength and speed his recovery. In 1988, Ashe needed an operation on his brain, and tests following that surgery were positive for the virus that causes AIDS. Doctors concluded that Ashe had contracted HIV from the transfusion he was given following his second heart surgery. At the time the news was a death sentence. However, this did not stop Ashe from struggling for social justice. In 1985 he was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington, DC, while protesting against the country's institutionalized racism. A few years later he was arrested again, for speaking out against President Bush's policy regarding the treatment of Haitian refugees with HIV/AIDS.

In 1992, USA Today threatened to run a story announcing that Ashe had AIDS. He talked it over with his wife and decided to scoop the paper. In a public press conference, Ashe not only admitted that he had AIDS but kicked off his campaign to educate the public about the disease and set up a foundation to defeat the disease. He spoke out against discrimination against homosexuals in general and AIDS sufferers for the remainder of his life. But he never asked for pity. When a well-meaning reporter for People magazine suggested that having AIDS must be the greatest burden Ashe had ever had to bear, he corrected her. "No, it isn't," he wrote in his memoir. "Being Black is the greatest burden I've had to bear.… Having to live as a minority in America. Even now it continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me."

Ashe completed his final memoir, Days of Grace, just two days before he died. The book concludes with an open letter to his daughter, Camera, then only six years old (she was born December 21, 1986), whom he wrote was a "daily affirmation of the power of life." That spirit kept Ashe active and outspoken throughout his fatal illness. "He was out doing things, making his point, and taking care of business right up until the end," former competitor Jimmy Connors recalled in Sports Stars. "I guess that sums up everything he stood for."

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsTennisArthur Ashe Biography - Growing Up, Early Lessons, The Amateur Years, Chronology, Ranked Number One, Center Court