Twenty-five years after his death, famed African-American tennis player Arthur Ashe has yet to have his biography written.
This August, that changes when USF St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault's newest book, “Arthur Ashe: A Life,” is published by Simon & Schuster. The 700-plus-page book will be the first extensive biography of Ashe.
It's being released in time for the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open this year. Ashe won the first U.S. Open in 1968, which also made him the first African-American male player to win a Grand Slam singles title. He went on to add an Australian title in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. He still remains the only African-American man to win singles titles at each of those events.
Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at USFSP, took eight years writing the book, which he said will be his last.
He said his interest in Arthur Ashe sparked the idea for the biography. That interest stemmed from his tennis partner in graduate school at Brandeis University, who was an admirer of Ashe.
After writing books on the Freedom Riders and singer Marian Anderson, Arsenault said he wanted to write one more to complete a trilogy of books on civil rights icons.
“Both of those were civil rights stories which had somehow been missed by the historical profession. There have not been any books on them and it was kind of striking,” Arsenault said. “I guess I was a little greedy and wanted a third [book] and I had had a long-time interest in Arthur Ashe…going back to the 1970s.”
Arsenault said his research took him to the archives of Wimbledon and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He also went through 95 boxes of news clippings and letters from the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
In more than 150 interviews, Arsenault talked to Charlie Pasarell, Stan Smith and other well-known tennis players of Ashe’s time, as well as Ashe’s widow and brother.
“Those interviews I think added a lot to my understanding of who he was and why he was so special and the trials and tribulations that he went through as really the only black male player on the tennis tour for 20 to 25 years,” Arsenault said.
“He was sort of the Jackie Robinson of men’s tennis," Arsenault said, referring to the first African-American Major League Baseball player. "But he was Jackie Robinson without a Willie Mays or a Hank Aaron or a Frank Robinson. He was alone and I think that placed special burdens on him.”
Arsenault said Ashe’s activism off the court and intellectual nature was out of the norm for famous African-Americans of his time, which added to his legacy.
“He broke through the kind of romantic racialism that tried to put African-Americans in a culture box, that they were just performers and athletes. They couldn’t be intellectual or in a sense, political leaders,” Arsenault said.