He was a professional tennis player, who represented India – the country of his birth – at Wimbledon and the US Open, before becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest players, producing films with stars from Cate Blanchett to Angelina Jolie. Now Ashok Amritraj is recalling his earlier career by making a major feature film about Arthur Ashe, the American athlete who became the only black man to win Wimbledon.
What gives the film a special touch is that Amritraj himself played Ashe in the mid-1970s in St Louis, Missouri. He lost, but his admiration for his opponent, both on and off the court, remains undimmed. He describes him as a “charismastic” player, as well as “a gentleman and an intellectual” in person.
Ashe grew up at a time when men and women were refused entry to tennis clubs because of the colour of their skin. He first played tennis aged seven in a segregated playground near his home in Richmond, Virginia. His early potential was spotted by Walter Johnson, who coached him.
He went on to triumph at Wimbledon in 1975, beating the favourite, Jimmy Connors – in a 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 victory remembered as “a tactical masterpiece” – as well as winning the US and Australian open titles. In his memoir Days of Grace, Ashe wrote that Connors had smacked the ball “with a force that bordered on vindictiveness”. But this will be a film as much about Ashe’s achievements in battling discrimination.