Remembering Lenny Simpson, a titan of tennis

Victoria Chiesa | February 12, 2024

It's tough to pinpoint just what Lendward "Lenny" Simpson's most lasting accomplishment is in the sport of tennis.


He was handed his first tennis racquet by the legendary Althea Gibson—who greeted the then-5-year-old with a warm "Hello, champ," a moment that Simpson never forgot—on the famed backyard tennis court of civil rights activist Dr. Hubert A. Eaton, a court which nurtured Black tennis talents in the then-segregated South (and that Simpson purchased and helped restore five years ago). At 9, he left his hometown of Wilmington, N.C. for Virginia, to train with Dr. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson’s American Tennis Association Junior Development Team, which attracted the top Black players in the country, and of which Gibson and Arthur Ashe were alumni. Six years later, Simpson became the youngest man (at the time) to play at the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills, the precusor to the modern-day US Open. He compiled a storied collegiate career as the top player at East Tennessee State University, and as a professional, was the first African American man to play in BIllie Jean King's famed World TeamTennis league in the 1970s.

But for as much as tennis' past is integral in telling Simpson's story, his legacy is perhaps most fully intertwined with the sport's future: through the youth impacted by the Lenny Simpson Tennis & Education Fund and his One Love Tennis organization, kids who will continue to share Simpson's knowledge and principles with the world even after his passing late last week at the age of 75. 


One Love Tennis, founded by Simpson in 2013, is a USTA Foundation National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter that works tirelessly to change the lives of under-resourced youth through the powerful combination of tennis and education. More than 50 years ago, Simpson's friend Ashe joined Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder in founding NJTL, in the hopes that youth could be taught good character values and life skills through the sport of tennis.


As a man who often said that the trajectory of his life changed because of tennis, Simpson hoped to pay to forward through One Love. And he did: Honored by the USTA as the NJTL Chapter of the Year in 2017, One Love has touched countless youth in and around Wilmington. (But Simpson once wrote in heartfelt gratitude to the organization's supporters that the number was at least 10,000.)


Simpson's personal accolades were just as numerous. In 2011, he was inducted into the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame, and a year later, the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame. He also features in two exhibits by the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. that chronicle Black tennis, including the current "Breaking Boundaries in Black Tennis" exhibitHe was enshrined into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014, where he occupies rarefied air with his friends Ashe and Gibson, his early coaches Eaton and Johnson, and other luminaries who changed the game in their own ways.


"Of all the accolades, this is the one I cherish the most," Simpson said at the time. 

In 2019, Simpson was honored by the USTA with the NJTL Founders' Service Award, which, since 2010, has honored those committed to instilling NJTL values in young people. Though he stepped down as One Love's executive director in 2022, having returned to court after a 2021 stroke, he continued to remain heavily involved with the organzation.


After his passing, One Love hailed Simpson as a "true visionary, an inspiring leader, and a dear friend to so many."


"We have lost our leader but his legacy will continue as the One Love story doesn’t end here," a statement on the organization's Facebook page read. "We will continue his legacy with this next chapter just as he wished."


A celebration of Simpson's life will be held at Wilmington's Port City Community Church at a date to be announced.

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