If You Think Back to Ashe’s ’75 Upset, His Brains Were Rare Key To Victory

By Chuck Culpepper
Updated: July 10, 2005

NEW YORK – Great coaching and great scouting and great equipment haven’t ruined our precious lives, but it’s not for lack of trying.

They’ve robbed an untold chunk of surprise from sports, as teams and players know each other’s tendencies so expertly that it’s increasingly hard to find somebody pulling a strategic fast one on somebody else during an entire game or match.

Here on the 62nd anniversary of the day the planet received a gift called Arthur Ashe, let’s extol an outright tactical stunner that turned 30 on Tuesday. If the events of July 5, 1975 don’t qualify as the foremost all-time case of brains over might, they at least get a spot on the medal stand.

If you don’t know much about July 5, 1975, it’s probably because Ashe overshadowed it by marshaling his boundless dignity against racism, apartheid, heart disease and AIDS. But don’t knock the triviality of the tennis cleverness.

It had its transcendence beyond sports, too.

As of dawn on July 5, 1975, nobody on Earth could beat Jimmy Connors. Aged only 22 years by then, Connors had torn like a loud piece of farm machinery through two straight Wimbledon draws.

His 1974 surge concluded with a 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 win over the comparatively decrepit 39-year-old Ken Rosewall. His 1975 blast featured no lost sets before the final, where a similarly hopeless Ashe turned up at a comparatively decrepit 31, five days shy of 32.

Having already won the 1968 U.S. Open and 1970 Australian Open, Ashe had graced his first Wimbledon final.

How lovely for him. What a showing. He’d get a pat on the back and a runner-up trophy.

What happened next confounded the eyes.

Connors won the first game, but Ashe won the next nine, and in those nine, Connors managed 11 points.

Connors won the next game, but Ashe the three after that for a two-set lead at which point Connors had won all of 30 points – 12 in the first set, 18 in the second.

Ashe’s 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victory was rare, rare spectacle. An underdog had won not with some feisty energy surge or by playing out of his mind, but by placidly thinking it through.

By the time the bespectacled thinker got through thinking, a marked array of surprise would come off his racket. He reinvented himself overnight.

“A fine display of pit-a-pat tennis,” The Times of London superbly called it. Once acknowledged as some corner-painting gambler, Ashe had thwarted Connors’ power by short-circuiting his own, and just watching the whole thing could dazzle you with a woozy disbelief.

Later, of course, he’d go on to occlude the whole thing. You know, just your average post-athletic life of marrying, welcoming a daughter, writing a three-volume history of black American athletes, getting arrested at the South African embassy for protesting apartheid, inspiring millions, becoming the first American the freshly freed Nelson Mandela wanted to meet, living with AIDS with a profound fearlessness and bustle, steadfastly avoiding the alluring call of bitterness, starting an AIDS charity, winning the respect and love of the world, writing another book, and before all of that, captaining the U.S. Davis Cup team.

When he died in February 1993, he lay in state in the state Capitol of Virginia, the birthplace that once had excluded him from competitive tennis because of pigmentation.

A few thousand lined up.

So it’s easy to forget that Ashe also found the time to provide an unforgettable picture of a sly strategist outfoxing a commanding favorite, and that he did so as the black player using wits and smarts to overcome a physical-talent deficiency against a white player.

How to measure the blessings of that scenario for a young American culture still waking from ignorance? You can’t.

Even in the allegedly trivial confines of the court, Arthur Ashe amplified possibility.