SA sport features


Ashe's Soweto dream revived

5 April 2007

The Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in Soweto has reopened with a new look and a renewed ambition: to groom the famous township's first tennis champion.

The eight-court mixed-use precinct, originally built with funds donated by Ashe in the 1970s, has been refurbished to the tune of R4.5-million.

Speaking at the opening ceremony on Saturday, Ashe's widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, said it was a special occasion for her and for the legacy of a man who had dedicated a large part of his life to fighting social injustice.

"In 1976, Arthur felt compelled to build a tennis court in a township where underprivileged and sidelined people stayed," she said. "Today a tennis court welcomes people of every race to enjoy tennis."

The revamped centre boasts a new clubhouse with a bar and lounge leading to a terrace overlooking the courts, new ablution facilities and separate restrooms for umpires. The centre complements the library and skills development centre that were built in the wider precinct at a cost of R9-million and R4.2-million respectively.

South African Tennis Association chief executive Iain Smith said that national and international coaching clinics would be conducted at the centre, with the ultimate goal of producing Soweto's own Arthur Ashe.

Ashe's challenge

Ashe, a former world number one the first black man to win the US Open and Wimbledon, was a spirited anti-apartheid protester.

In 1970, when Ashe was the top-ranked American in the game, he applied to play in the South African Open, which was at that time a prestigious event, regarded just below the level of a Grand Slam tournament.

Ashe knew his chances of being granted a visa were slim, given South Africa's apartheid policies at the time, and he was right - his application was turned down.

Ashe responded by calling for South Africa's explusion from the International Lawn Tennis Federation and the Davis Cup. He immediately received plenty of support, successfully drawing the world's attention to the iniquity of South Africa's former political system.

His actions also lent weight to a number of other sporting codes imposing sanctions against South Africa.

Ashe in South Africa

In 1973, Ashe was finally awarded a visa and made it to South Africa, becoming the first black man to contest the South African Open.

His fight against apartheid didn't end with his admittance to the country, however. In 1985, with his playing career already over, he was arrested while taking part in an anti-apartheid protest outside the South African embassy in Washington.

And in 1991 he was part of a 31-member delegation of prominent African-Americans who visited South Africa to observe political changes in the country as it moved inexorably towards becoming a democracy.

Sadly, he never saw that day come to pass, as he died from Aids in 1993. He had contracted the disease from a blood transfusion during bypass surgery 10 years earlier.

SAinfo reporter and City of Johannesburg

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 Arthur Ashe: for black tennis players, a trailblazer in a historically white sport; for black South Africans, a leader in the drive to isolate the apartheid government (Photo: Arthur Ashe official website)  Kids learn ball skills at the opening of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in Soweto (Photo by Ndaba Dlamini, City of Johannesburg)

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