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Tennis great Ashe says he has AIDS


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 1999

The revelation, thrust upon the world by an overly aggressive and injudicious media, hit with the force of an overhand smash.

Arthur Ashe had AIDS.

On Aug. 1, 1963, he became the first African-American player named to the U.S. Davis Cup team.

On Sept. 9, 1968, while still an amateur, he won the U.S. Open, the only African-American man to win that title. He was ranked No. 1 in the world.

On Jan. 26, 1970, he won his second Grand Slam title, the Australian Open.

On July 5, 1975, he upset Jimmy Connors in the final at Wimbledon, the only black man to win the world's most prestigious grass court tournament. Again he was ranked No. 1.

And on April 8, 1992, he reluctantly told the world what only he and those closest to him knew, that he had known for four years that he had the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, that gradually destroys the immune system. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, is the final and most serious stage of the HIV disease.

"I'm sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now, at this time," Ashe said. He did so with some bitterness because USA Today had called him the previous week and disclosed that it was working on a story saying he had AIDS.

"They felt journalistically they had to follow up, and I was the victim."

The newspaper's editors rejected his insistence that he was not a public figure. If Ashe didn't confirm the rumors, they said, they would try to find someone who would.

"Match point had come, and I had lost it," Ashe said. "All I could do now was try to control the announcement itself, to have it heard directly from me. ... Sadly, there was no good reason for this to have to happen now."

He was 48 and said he was reasonably certain he had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion after a 1979 bypass operation, more likely, during another bypass in 1983. Blood screening to test for the AIDS virus began in 1985.

Ashe said he learned in 1988 he had AIDS. He entered New York Hospital for brain surgery after he experienced numbness in his right hand. Surgeons found toxoplasmosis, a protozoan parasite that can attack patients whose immunity is weakened by AIDS.

"Any admission of HIV infection at that time," Ashe explained, "would have seriously, permanently, and -- my wife and I believed -- unnecessarily infringed upon my family's right to privacy."

He said he was on medication, including AZT, and that his "ratio of good days to bad days is about six to one. I don't think anybody in my stage of this would be able to go through with no bad days. That just happens." Ashe also said his wife, Jeanne, and 5-year-old daughter Camera "are in excellent health and both are HIV-negative."

By the mid-1980s, Ashe had become a social activist, arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid protest, arrested outside the White House while protesting the United States crackdown on Haitian refugees.

In a television special on Ashe, friend Bryant Gumbel said: "He was an ambassador of what was right. He was an ambassador of dignity. He was an ambassador of class."

Ten months after his public announcement that he had AIDS, Ashe died of pneumonia.

-- Information from Times files and Days of Grace: A Memoir by Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf).

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