Dr. Robert Walter Johnson.
© United States Tennis Association
By E.J. Crawford, USTA.com
Dr. Robert Johnson was, first and foremost, a teacher. And he was perhaps the most formative instructor in the history of African-American tennis. His students included Grand Slam titlists Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe as well as countless young black players who traveled to his home in Lynchburg, Va., to learn from the physician who turned a backyard tennis court into a training ground for future champions – and a catalyst for change.
Born in 1899, Johnson was a star football player – an All-American in 1924 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania – who turned to tennis while in medical school as a way to stay in shape. He would go on to become one of the game’s leading proponents, dedicated to integrating African-American athletes into what was then a nearly all-white sport. To that end, Johnson established a Junior Development program for the American Tennis Association and eventually rose to become the ATA’s vice president. He also was the tournament director for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Championships Association, a group of black colleges.
But he is best remembered for his tutelage of Gibson and Ashe. Johnson and Gibson actually teamed to win seven ATA mixed doubles titles together before she went on to acclaim in singles, winning five Grand Slam titles including the U.S. Championships in 1957 and 1958. Ashe would win three Slam singles titles in all, including the inaugural US Open in 1968.
Johnson died in 1971, having lived to see so much of his work come to fruition. In 2009, he joined his two most famous pupils in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a man born in the 19th Century whose tireless efforts to provide opportunities for all competitors, as the Tennis Hall of Fame notes in its official bio, forever changed the sport of tennis – and the face of sport – in the 20th and on into the 21st.