Arthur Ashe caused a storm by playing in apartheid SA
Fifty years ago, the tennis legend appeared at the SA Open as a black man and not an ‘honorary white’ – a designation the apartheid government used to let sport stars into the country.
On 14 November 1973, Ellis Park in Johannesburg was the epicentre of the sporting world. Not for an event in the rugby stadium, but for one at the neighbouring hardcourt tennis centre where Arthur Ashe was playing his first-round match in the SA Open against fellow American Sherwood Stewart.
It was, according to contemporary reports, “a perfectly warm spring day” in Doornfontein, but there was nothing ordinary about the occasion. The appearance of one of the world’s most famous and thoughtful black sportsmen in apartheid South Africa was astonishing, especially when combined with the entry of Australia’s Indigenous 1971 Wimbledon champion, Evonne Goolagong, in the women’s draw.
Fifty years on, it still seems a momentous and somewhat bewildering occurrence.
Against considerable global and local opposition, the strong-willed Ashe, who had become the first black man to win the US Open in 1968, was determined to break the burgeoning sports boycott, which already included a ban from the Olympics, to experience apartheid South Africa for himself.
Most of the world’s top players competed in the SA Open at that time, but Ashe had been denied a visa to enter the country for three years running by the National Party government. In 1973, it suddenly relented.
It was a period of reluctant shifts by the Nats. They’d refused to admit the coloured former Capetonian Basil D’Oliveira with the English cricket team in 1968, forcing the cancellation of that tour, and then grudgingly admitted the Samoan Bryan Williams and Maoris Sid Going, Buff Milner and Blair Furlong as “honorary whites” to save the 1970 All Blacks rugby tour.
Goolagong had appeared in Johannesburg in 1972, under the same token designation, as the first black person to compete in the SA Open, but Ashe was having none of that, insisting that he enter in 1973 as a black person.
The SA Open had a mixed-race but segregated crowd, with promoter Owen Williams surreptitiously giving away hundreds of tickets to coloured and black tennis fans. It would not have escaped Ashe or Goolagong’s attention that attendance at tournaments everywhere else on the global circuit was usually as white as the de rigueur playing kit of the times.
Both Ashe and Goolagong said they were motivated in part by a desire to demonstrate that black players were the equal of whites. To make that point they needed to win matches. Goolagong delivered in 1972 by taking the singles title in a three-set win over Briton Virginia Wade and winning the doubles with compatriot Helen Gourlay. In 1973, she lost the singles final to the young American star Chris Evert.
Ashe cleaned up Stewart in 1973 easily enough and got past Bob Hewitt and then his good friend Cliff Drysdale in the semis, but he lost the final to 20-year-old Jimmy Connors.
The same result in the final was repeated the next year when Ashe returned to Johannesburg. However, when the two met again in the 1975 Wimbledon final, the veteran Ashe outfoxed Connors, the overwhelming favourite, to become that tournament’s first and only black male champion.
Goolagong also spoke of being tired of being defined by race. She said that every report anywhere described her as “the Aboriginal Australian”, while no one ever defined any of her contemporaries as “white Australians”. It seems counterintuitive for her to be comfortable to visit a place built on just such racial definitions, but she felt a degree of emotional logic in the decision.
Video of her 1972 win over Wade can be found on YouTube. It’s sedate stuff, a thousand miles from the Serena Williams power era, especially as both players were using wooden racquets. But it does demonstrate the extraordinary grace of Goolagong’s game, which disguised her great athleticism.
Some brief footage of Ashe’s two Johannesburg finals also can be found. The tennis feels closer to the modern game with the first of the metal rackets, but the shorts were definitely a lot shorter.
It reflects the serious gender imbalance of history that I, a Goolagong devotee living in Australia at the time, can clearly recall the ruckus about Ashe visiting South Africa but have no recollection of Goolagong’s trips, which, in theory, were every bit as controversial. But both suffered for their decisions. Goolagong was described by an Aboriginal campaigner in an Australian newspaper as an “exhibition n****r”.
Ashe was damned as an Uncle Tom by local black activists and criticised for staying in a plush white-owned home during the tournament rather than in Soweto, which he did visit several times and where he founded a tennis centre. “I know damn well how badly the Africans in this country live, but I cannot see how it would serve any useful purpose for me to live like one myself,” he wrote in his superb diary of the time, published as Portrait In Motion.
In the 1980s, Ashe appeared before a United Nations committee to explain the motivations for his controversial trips to South Africa and expressed some regret for them. He died in 1993 at the age of 49.
Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the main court at the US Open, the largest tennis arena in the world, rightfully is named in his honour.
In 1982, Evonne Goolagong Cawley became the first mother to win Wimbledon in 66 years with a famous victory over her 1973 SA Open conqueror, Evert.
She remains a revered figure in Australia and relished the triumphs this millennium of another great Indigenous tennis champion, Ash Barty. DM
Mike Wills is a journalist and former broadcaster.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.