Fifty years ago this year Hall of Famer Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to win a major title, lifting the trophy at the 1968 US Open. And, some sixty-or-so years ago Ashe was busy developing his tennis skills on a single clay court in Lynchburg, Virginia at the home of Dr. Robert Johnson. Ashe wasn't the only great to come through Dr. Johnson's court. Hall of Famer Althea Gibson, a 5-time major champion, was his first star student. Additionally, countless young players developed a passion for the sport on Dr. Johnson's court, with many going on to be collegiate student-athletes and lifelong players.
In late May, after several years of preparation, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the court that was instrumental in shaping the history of tennis, celebrating its complete restoration and dedication in Dr. Johnson's memory.
ITHF CEO Todd Martin spoke at the ceremony, stating, "For Arthur and Althea and countless others, Dr. Johnson shaped their lives for the future, and ultimately helped build the foundation from which people like Althea and Arthur changed the world. On this court, three Hall of Fame careers were born, but, without the one, would the other two have come to be?"
In recognition of his immense contributions to growing tennis and shaping the sport's history, Dr. Johnson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009. Dr. Johnson, a physician by trade, had a personal passion for tennis. In 1941, he constructed the court next to his home as country clubs did not allow black players at the time. Recognizing that access to tennis was limited for the African-American community, Dr. Johnson invited Gibson, a young tennis phenom, to come train with him. She would go on to become the first black player to compete at the U.S. Nationals, and in 1957, she won the trophy at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals.
Dr. Johnson went on to create a youth tennis development program, engaging well over 100 young players in the sport. One of those young talents was of course future Hall of Famer Arthur Ashe.
Another protégé of Dr. Johnson's was a man named Henry Kennedy, who played in the junior development program during the summer of 1965, as he was entering his senior year of high school. At the dedication ceremony, Kennedy stated, "I simply had an experience that I think affected the trajectory of my life. I was privileged with lessons that were geared toward tennis but were transferrable to other phases of life generally.”
Kennedy went on to play tennis at Princeton University and earn a law degree from Harvard University before becoming a federal prosecutor and eventually a federal judge.
Kennedy credits Dr. Johnson with instilling in him that there is no substitute for hard work and the importance of carrying oneself with dignity.
After Dr. Johnson passed away in 1972, his home was occupied by one of his nurses for many years, before the house and the court eventually fell into disrepair.
Efforts to restore the court were largely shepherded by Dr. Johnson's family, including his nephew Lange Johnson. Additionally, the United States Tennis Association contributed significantly to the cost of the project.
“It really was the launching pad for so many different lives and careers that we felt like that was the first leg of the stool that needed to be completed, followed by the shed and then the home,” Lange Johnson said.
In the fall, Lynchburg Parks and Recreation will use the tennis court for free youth tennis programming.
“That tennis court was used to provide an opportunity for disadvantaged youth as well as youth who showed potential in tennis but didn’t have a place that was accessible to them. This program brings back the spirit of that tennis court,” said Jennifer Jones, director of Lynchburg Parks and Recreation.
During the restoration process, Dr. Johnson's family established the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation - so named for his nickname as a speedy collegiate football player. Learn more about Dr. Johnson's life and legacy on the foundation website, here.