Arthur Ashe's Tennis Racket – Newport, Rhode Island - Atlas Obscura
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Arthur Ashe's Tennis Racket

The tennis legend used this racket while breaking the race barrier and becoming the first black man to win the US Open. 

Arthur Ashe was talented and tenacious. In a sport mostly practiced by the rich white elite, he excelled. Ashe was a first for many titles in tennis, and in 1968 he broke the race barrier and was the first black man to ever win the United States Open Tennis Championships (US Open). The racket he used is displayed at the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Ashe was the first black player allowed to play on the U.S. Davis Cup team. During his career, he also was the first black player to win a singles title at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. And, of course, his US Open win made—and subsequently shaped—history.

Though he gained accolades, the trophy, and the US Open championship title, Ashe was denied the prize money of $14,000. The prize money was awarded instead to his opponent, a professional player named Tom Okker. A rule citing that prize money couldn’t be awarded to amateur players was the excuse (Okker had registered as a professional player while Ashe registered as an amateur).

This decision caused uproar among the amateur community, which banded together behind Ashe and informed the committee and community that no amateur would ever compete in any regulation tennis competition again. While Ashe was still not awarded the prize money in the end, the committee did change the rules to state that whoever was the winner henceforth would receive the prize money regardless of professional status.

In 1980, Ashe retired from playing professional tennis. He died in 1993 from complications due to HIV, which he is believed to have contracted during a blood transfusion from a heart bypass surgery. After his diagnosis, he spent the remainder of his life advocating for HIV patients. The Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health and Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS were both founded by the famous tennis player. President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ashe in 1993 in honor of his many achievements both on the court, within the civil rights movement, and in his later life advocating for finding a cure for AIDS.

The Tennis Hall of Fame honors the legend Ashe and has several displays about his career and groundbreaking wins. In addition to the racket, the building also houses the telegram sent to Ashe by Jackie Robinson congratulating him on his amazing achievement.

Update: As of August 2019, the tennis racket is no longer on display. 

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