09.05.21: Honoring Arthur Ashe

The Arthur Ashe statue stands outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York City.

The Arthur Ashe sculpture stands outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York City.

Sculpture honoring Ashe controversial at first

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Aug 29, 2016 11:01 AM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  • Lens: EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM 
  • Focal length: 22mm
  • Aperture: f/4.5
  • Shutter: 1/500 second
  • ISO: 125

In August 2000, a sculpture honoring the late tennis great Arthur Ashe was dedicated at what was then known as the United State’s Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open in New York City.

The 14-foot-tall bronze figure left many Ashe admirers and tennis fans in general puzzled and even angered.

First, the figure was nude. Why? Ashe never played tennis in the nude, critics said.

"I wanted to give these attributes a human form and I wanted it to be uplifting; to give the viewer a soaring and transcendent feeling," sculptor Eric Fischl said. "I believe it had to be nude to give these values a timeless quality and to remind us that our immortality necessarily passes through the vulnerability of our flesh."

OK. But the figure is positioned as if serving a tennis ball but it just has the handle of a racquet. That looks really odd, critics pointed out.

Fischl said he wanted the object to represent not only a racquet but a baton that is passed from generation to generation.

OK. But the sculpture honoring Arthur Ashe doesn’t even look like Arthur Ashe.

"My ambition was to create a work in the tradition of heroic sculpture that, though not a likeness of Arthur Ashe, tries to express values that I associate with him and his good works," Fischl said.

Despite the early criticism, the large, bronze nude figure serving with the handle of a tennis racquet and doesn’t resemble Arthur Ashe but honors his memory has now become a recognizable part of the grounds. It stands outside Arthur Ashe Stadium (which also doesn’t look like Arthur Ashe) at what is now called the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (which doesn’t look like Billie Jean King).

I guess criticism fades with time.

It’s hoped that isn’t the same for the memory of Ashe’s accomplishments, both on and off the tennis court.

Ashe won three Grand Slam tennis titles. He is the only black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon (1975), the U.S. Open (1968) or the Australian Open (1970). He was the first black player selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team and led the U.S. team to Davis Cup championships in 1968, 1969 and 1970.

In 1979, while holding a tennis clinic in New York, Ashe suffered a heart attack at age 36. Ashe was an extremely fit athlete, so the heart attack brought national attention to the hereditary aspect of heart disease. Ashe’s mother had cardiovascular disease and died at 27. His father  had two heart attacks, the second just a week before Ashe’s. 

Ashe underwent a quadruple bypass. In 1983 he had a second heart surgery to correct issues with the previous procedure.

Ashe became national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association, adding those responsibilities to the many civil rights causes he was actively supporting.

But in 1988, Ashe experienced paralysis in his right arm. After tests and brain surgery, doctors determined he had toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease found in people infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Tests confirmed Ashe had AIDS, which doctors believed he acquired from blood transfusions during the second heart surgery. Ashe and his wife decided to keep the diagnosis private.

But in 1992 Ashe learned that USA Today was about to publish a story about his illness so he preempted the story by making his own announcement. After going public, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. His foundation worked to raise awareness about the virus. Later that year, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Ashe pushed the growing need for AIDS awareness and increased global research funding. He then founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to address issues of inadequate health care delivery.

Two months later, on Feb. 6, 1993, Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia at age 49.

The base of the Arthur Ashe memorial at the National Tennis Center is engraved with this statement attributed to Ashe: “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”

Ashe earned a living from tennis, but he made a difference in many lives.

Despite the early criticism, the large, bronze nude figure serving with the handle of a tennis racquet and doesn’t resemble Arthur Ashe but honors his memory has now become a recognizable part of the grounds. 

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