In Summary
  • Ashe, who died in 1993, would have been 76 years old this month. In the truest sense of the term, he is one of the greatest sportsmen that ever lived and the example of how to deal with devastating defeats, few can match his.

What did Aliou Cissé say to his defeated players and staff in their lowest moment after Algeria beat Senegal to win this year’s Africa Cup of Nations last week? I don’t know.

But this much I know: the more he spoke, the bigger he grew before my eyes. The more he made 360-degree turns on the same spot to ensure he had the attention of everybody gathered around him, the more momentary the defeat appeared.

Senegal's coach Aliou Cisse (left) speaks with Senegal's defender Salif Sane after their defeat to Algeria in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final at the Cairo International Stadium in Cairo on July 19, 2019. PHOTO | JAVIER SORIANO | AFP

Senegal's coach Aliou Cisse (left) speaks with Senegal's defender Salif Sane after their defeat to Algeria in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final at the Cairo International Stadium in Cairo on July 19, 2019. PHOTO | JAVIER SORIANO | AFP

And the greater the passion in his demeanour, the more the faith written in the faces of his listeners, making you see not loneliness in the Senegalese delegation rooted in a tiny spot of a massive arena amid ubiquitous Algerians, but winners who know how to take defeat and whose best days are yet to be seen.
It was a life lesson. How do great sportsmen react to defeat?

Before the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, there was Arthur Ashe. He is the only black man to ever win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. Although the highest the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) - which he helped found - ranked him was second in 1976, some other reputable authorities predating the ATP and during its nascent stages, had ranked him World number one.

Ashe, who died in 1993, would have been 76 years old this month. In the truest sense of the term, he is one of the greatest sportsmen that ever lived and the example of how to deal with devastating defeats, few can match his.

An exterior view of Arthur Ashe Stadium during previews ahead of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup on July 25, 2019 in New York City. PHOTO | STEVEN RYAN | AFP

An exterior view of Arthur Ashe Stadium during previews ahead of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup on July 25, 2019 in New York City. PHOTO | STEVEN RYAN | AFP

These came early in his life. He was only seven years old when his mother died and he and his younger brother were raised by a strict but caring father. Big losses stalked him for the rest of his life - and killed him at the age of only 49.

Whether becoming the first black American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis title or similarly becoming the first to make the US Davis Cup team, whether making perennial visa applications to play in Apartheid South Africa which were always denied because of his skin colour or turning up at his wedding in a cast because of surgery as a result of debilitating injury, it seemed as if every step of his career was an uphill one. But he was a study in calmness and forbearance.

Injury and lengthy rehabilitative medical work saw his world ranking drop to a lower basement placing of number 257 but willpower brought him up to an astonishing number 13 in a comeback that could only be contrived but a man of such rare courage and determination in only a year. All this happened at the age of 35.

How did he get all this done? In just a few words, he gave the world a glimpse of the inner drive underlying his placid exterior: “You really are never playing an opponent. You are playing yourself.”

What a formidable opponent he must have taken himself to be! By the time he retired at the age of 36, he had chalked up 51 titles from 818 wins against 260 losses. It was not a voluntary retirement and through it came out the story of his triumph and tragedy and heroism worthy of emulation by generations of sportsmen coming after him.
While on the road back to the top after his injury, Ashe suffered a heart attack. This came while he was holding a tennis clinic in New York. It was a surprise to medical personnel and the world at large puzzled by how an athlete so strong and relatively young, a man of no known vices, could contract such a condition.
Investigations led to his family history which showed that both his parents suffered heart conditions; his mother had one at the time of her death at the age of 27 and his father suffered two at ages 55 and 59. Arthur Ashe’s was an early case in medical studies to reveal the hereditary nature of heart illness.
He underwent an operation and a few months afterwards, was holidaying with his family in Egypt when he was stricken again. He returned to New York immediately where he underwent another operation.

This left him with no option but to retire from tennis. He immediately took on the role of chairman of the American Heart Association. He used the star quality of his name to bring to public attention the travails of millions of people with a heart condition. He was as busy as ever.

But the bypass surgery had come with a catastrophic mistake whose consequences would only become apparent later. While undergoing a blood transfusion, he contracted the HIV from contaminated blood.

Knowledge of the virus and its debilitating effects on the human body was still at a rudimentary stage and it was not long before Ashe developed the Aids condition.

It was heartbreak.

Ashe and his wife’s first instinct was to shield their daughter from the news as he remained characteristically stoic about his fate.

But journalists are often unable to control their instincts and can sniff stories from great distances. Ashe had a friend who worked with the USA Today newspaper and who had stumbled on the story.

He called his friend to find out if it was true that he was unwell. Ashe stalled him but knew it was only a matter of time before the newspaper came up with the story.

He decided to pre-empt them and on April 8, 1992, he went public with news of his illness. He explained that he had contracted the HIV through a blood transfusion while undergoing heart bypass surgery.

It was one of the most gut wrenching stories of the day in America, a hero by any dimension laid low by medical failure. Ashe, sincere as always, disclosed that he never intended to make public his tragedy but only did so to pre-empt what was certain to come from USA Today.

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