In 1968, LIFE magazine wrote that Arthur Ashe was the new “king of the court” upon winning the first U.S. Open in which professionals could compete. Today, more than 40 years later, the best players on the planet are vying for the Open crown in the world’s largest tennis stadium, by sheer capacity—a stadium in Queens, N.Y., named after Ashe himself.
Ashe, a UCLA graduate, famously kept his cool on the court. In fact, during his playing days, commentators and even some early opponents suggested that he lacked the fiery, competitive drive of a true champion.
But underlying Ashe’s levelheadedness was his profound desire to play, and he quietly, coolly reveled in proving his doubters wrong. Dr. Walter Johnson, the African American physician who coached Ashe, believed that “the tournaments would use any excuse to keep us out.” According to Ashe, Dr. Johnson “made sure we didn’t do any arguing.” He maintained his composure throughout his professional career.
In the 10 years following his victory in the ’68 Open, Ashe went on to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open twice. In 1977 he married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy. During their travels, Moutoussamy would show her photographic work, while Ashe played. Moutoussamy told People magazine in 1979, “a lot of wives just love to watch their husbands play match after match. I get tennised-out.”
Ashe retired from pro tennis in 1980, but stayed involved as a writer for publications like TIME and a commentator for ABC. One of the great ambassadors of his sport, a man universally admired by players and fans, alike, Arthur Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia (he likely contracted HIV during heart bypass surgery years before) in February 1993. He was just 49 years old.