It was a tragic end to a lifetime of astounding achievement. When Arthur Ashe contracted AIDS in the late 1980s after a blood transfusion, the world of tennis was shocked. Such a waste of such a great life.
Born in 1943, in Virginia, Ashe had to surmount many obstacles to make his mark on the sport. As a black man in the 1960s he was not exactly welcomed by the then elitist sport of tennis. Racism was rife in the game. Ashe had to overcome both opponents on the court and prejudice off it.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed a glittering career which included triumphs at the US Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. But it was the discovery, in 1988, that he had AIDS which was to prove the greatest challenge of his life.
In 1979 he had suffered a heart attack and been forced to retire from the professional game. Two heart operations followed and tragically during one of these, he received a blood transfusion containing HIV-infected blood.
In his biography, Days of Grace, he described the moment when he first heard the awful news: “On Wednesday August 31 I checked into New York Hospital for a fresh battery of tests, including a spinal tap and a blood test,” he wrote. “On Friday… I heard the bad news. I was HIV positive.
“’What does this mean about [my wife] Jeanne?’ I asked. She reached out quickly, put her left arm around my shoulders, and squeezed my hand hard. ‘You and me, babe’ she said. ‘You and me’.”
“The following day the results came back. Not only was I HIV positive… I had full-blown AIDS.
“’Ah ha,’ I said… or so Jeanne tells me.”
Initially Ashe had tried to keep the infection secret from the public and media. By 1992, however, rumours had started to circulate. Knowing that the American newspaper USA Today was about to break the story, Ashe called a sudden press conference at the offices of the TV network HBO, in New York City.
“Almost exactly at 3.30 I entered the conference room on the 15th floor of the building,” Ashe wrote. “The room, warm and humid, was jammed with reporters; the podium groaned with microphones.”
Alongside Ashe, as he addressed the media, were his wife Jeanne, his cardiologist, his AIDS physician and close friends. “Rumours and half-truths have been floating about, concerning my medical condition since my heart attack on July 31, 1979,” he said. “Some of you heard that I tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
That is indeed the case.”
Ashe then explained how the virus had been transmitted through a blood transfusion during one of his open-heart surgeries (”almost certainly the second in 1983”). Tragically for him, HIV testing of donated blood didn’t start until two years after that.
Ashe died the following year from AIDS-related illnesses.
In the months leading up to his death he worked hard to bring attention to AIDS sufferers worldwide. Such was his impact on tennis and society as a whole that in 1997, when a new central stadium was built for the US Open, it was named after him.