2022 Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame: Bob Davis
Bob Davis will be inducted into the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame at the 35th Annual Eastern Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, to be held Friday, August 26, 2022. Proceeds from the event—including ticket sales—will benefit the Junior Tennis Foundation (JTF), which helps provide scholarships to junior and adaptive players across the Eastern Section. You can purchase tickets to the event here. Learn more about the ceremony and the JTF here.
Robert C. “Bob” Davis is a longtime tennis advocate and visionary. As the national program director for the Arthur Ashe Safe Passage Foundation from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, the New York City native played a central role in introducing the sport to thousands upon thousands of children across the country. To Davis, the position was more than just a job. It was deeply personal work, and something, he says, that he was born to do.
“So many of the friends that I grew up with in Harlem ended up dead,” he explains. “I began to understand how blessed I was, and that all my blessings are a product of having been introduced to tennis at eight years old. I wanted to give kids the opportunities that I had.” Davis’s brother Billy—who was 14 years older and already making waves in the sport—facilitated that fateful introduction to the game, arranging for Bob to take lessons from his own coach (and 1993 Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame inductee) Sydney Llewellyn. Nicknamed “Mr. Tennis”, Llewellyn trained a host of American Tennis Association (ATA) champions—including Billy—and most notably also worked with Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson. As a teenager, Bob sometimes served as a hitting partner for Gibson in her practices at the Fred Johnson Courts on 151st Street, or, as they were known back then, “The Jungle”.
“She would torment me, make no mistake about it,” Bob says with a laugh. “Althea was a tough lady. If you came to the net, she’d try to knock you down.”
Being surrounded by greatness no doubt rubbed off on him. In 1961, when Bob was 17 years old, he captured the ATA National Junior Championship in dramatic fashion, coming back from two sets down in 100-degree heat to defeat top-seeded Charles Berry, a player who had beaten him the three previous times they’d faced off against each other.
“It was glorious,” Bob recalls. “After that match, Sydney started calling me ‘champ,’ which was our nickname for Althea. As a teenager, that made me feel wonderful.”
It would be the first of two national ATA titles in two years for Bob; in 1962, he stepped up from the juniors and partnered with his brother to win the championship in the men’s doubles event.
Although he never stopped competing—even capturing the USTA Mixed Doubles National Championship in 2006—Bob’s biggest achievements in the game in his adult life have no doubt occurred off the court, as he has focused on developing playing opportunities for young children.
In 1983, after reflecting on his own experiences with Llewellyn as a young kid, he opened an upstate New York-based tennis academy for juniors from underserved communities. A couple years later, Bob brought some of his students to the USTA National Tennis Center in Queens. There, he ran into two of the biggest names in the sport at the time: Grand Slam champion Arthur Ashe—a longtime acquaintance from his days on the ATA circuit—as well as famed coach (and fellow 2022 Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame inductee) Nick Bollettieri. Ashe and Bollettieri were in the process of developing what would eventually become Safe Passage, an organization that used tennis as a means to improve the lives of kids in urban areas across the country. The pair asked Bob to come on board and run the day-to-day operations, and it was an offer he simply couldn’t turn down.
In this role, Bob oversaw the implementation of Safe Passage’s tennis programming in 10 U.S. cities. He wrote the entire lesson plan and hired the staff at every location, while Ashe and Bollettieri used their celebrity to promote it. The program debuted in Newark, N.J. and was heralded as a resounding success right out of the gate.
“Newark had a lot of the social ills Arthur and Nick were looking to deal with,” Bob says. “It also had a mayor, Sharpe James, who was a tennis fanatic. We met with him and told him what we wanted to do, and he agreed to fund the program. He said ‘I want to see kids walking down the street with tennis racquets in their hands,’ and we gave that to him. We had 1500 kids in that city playing tennis, and that was just the beginning.”
All in all, a staggering 80,000 children have picked up racquets through Safe Passage programming. And while the foundation eventually dissolved a few years after Ashe’s death in 1993, one of the original 10 sites still exists today—as the 15-LOVE organization in Albany, N.Y.
Since his work with Safe Passage, Bob has continued to serve his community through tennis. In the 1990s, he established the Black Dynamics organization to help talented Black juniors further their athletic development. (Former Top 50 WTA athletes Jamea Jackson and Shenay Perry both received support from Black Dynamics as young players.) Bob also created the Panda Foundation in 2000, which aimed to recreate the triumphs of Safe Passage a decade earlier. And in 2008, he was named the first executive director of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame (BTHOF). It was a role for which he was uniquely suited, considering how much his own journey in the sport over the years has intersected with many of the legends the BTHOF has celebrated. To date the BTHOF has inducted nearly 100 tennis VIPs—including Bob himself in 2014. The honor was more than well-deserved, given the sheer breadth of his impact on children across the country through his many endeavors, particularly Safe Passage.
“We used tennis as a hook to bring kids into productive adulthood,” he says. “We developed some competitive players… maybe not world champions, but we got a lot of kids to stay in school and become productive adults. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
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