Dr. Robert Walter "Whirlwind" Johnson was the force behind integrated tennis. As his nickname "Whirlwind" suggests, he stormed across the American tennis landscape for three decades (1940-1970) and changed tennis forever. The former football All-American built a tennis dynasty in Lynchburg, Va. that produced the first two African-American grand slam champions, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
On August 24, 1946, Dr. Johnson and his good friend Dr. Hubert Eaton witnessed the future of world tennis: Althea Gibson. That day, they vowed to each other and Althea to break the game's color barrier and develop a grand slam champion. They made many personal and financial sacrifices to achieve this end. Althea later declared, "I owe the doctors a great deal. If I ever amount to anything, it will be because of them." Althea integrated Forest Hills in 1950; seven years later, she won it.
A New Junior Development Program
Dr. Johnson, a human dynamo, did not hesitate once Althea's course was set. He immediately spun into action and established the Junior Development Tennis Program under the aegis of the American Tennis Association. Each summer, he invited dozens of talented juniors to train on his backyard court. They traveled the country, winning titles and making history. In 1953 (Ashe's first year at camp), the USLTA extended an invitation to Dr. Johnson's team to play the nationals at Kalamazoo using ATA credentials. That same summer, Bobby Riggs conducted a clinic on Dr. Johnson's court.
An Unrivaled Legacy
"Dr. J", as players called him, was more than a coach. He was a teacher and role model. He was a talent scout par excellence who could spot and develop untapped potential. He preached perseverance, patience, sportsmanship, etiquette, humility and hard work. He valued education and garnered for his campers' college scholarships through his network of associations established during his college football playing and coaching days. His lasting legacy is that he made tennis accessible for everyone by relocating it from private, segregated country clubs to integrated public facilities.