story behind the book | kate tuttle

A tennis great and an American hero

david wilson for the boston globe

As a civil rights historian, Raymond Arsenault knew Arthur Ashe’s life story included important work in freedom struggles. Then there was the sports connection. “I’m a tennis player myself,” Arsenault said, but added, “I was more interested in his life off the court as an activist, as a philanthropist, as a public intellectual, as someone who devoted much of his life to social justice.”

In “Arthur Ashe: A Life,” Arsenault chronicles the tennis great’s journey, starting in segregated Richmond, Va., where he was a bookish, sickly boy, forlorn after the death of his mother when he was just six. “His father was the manager of the largest black park in Richmond,” Arsenault said; the family home he built was “about fifty feet from the tennis courts.” Even though the young Ashe didn’t look like he’d grow into a world-class athlete, he added, “it wasn’t long before he was beating everyone in his age group, and a lot of kids older than he was.”

Arsenault, whose previous books include works on the 1961 Freedom Riders and the singer Marian Anderson, knew his subject was a pioneer: the first black player selected for the US Davis Cup team, Ashe not only endured racism, but he also interrogated it. He wrote books about the history of black athletes, newspaper commentary, memoirs. “In another life, he would have been a college professor,” Arsenault said. “Probably no other figure in American athletic history really compares to him in that sense.”


Ashe retired in 1980, three Grand Slam titles to his name, and died in 1993 of complications from AIDS, contracted from a blood transfusion during surgery. He would be 75 if he were still alive today. “I think he would certainly be very supportive of the taking a knee movement,” Arsenault said. “He felt very strongly that athletes should have a voice, speak out.”

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Historians value detachment, but Arsenault said he came to believe that Ashe was “one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century.”

“In a society that’s in need of real heroes,’’ he said, “I think if Arthur Ashe was not a hero I’m not sure who has been.”

Arsenault will read at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, at Belmont Books.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at