Dr. Robert Johnson's court Restoring history
Before she won her first U.S. Championships title, 60 years ago this year, Althea Gibson learned to play the game under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Johnson on a small clay court in Lynchburg, Va. As a young man, long before he won the inaugural US Open in 1968, Arthur Ashe did the same.
This summer, to commemorate the legacies of those two great champions and the inimitable man who taught them both the game, the USTA is teaming with the Johnson family to reconstruct that court in Lynchburg, restoring an important artifact of tennis history to its former glory.
“It is critical that this part of tennis history is restored because this is largely the place where a great amount of tennis history was created,” said Eileen Johnson, Dr. Johnson’s granddaughter. “Too few people know this. But with the restoration and other efforts afoot to educate the country about the legacy of Dr. Johnson, the word will spread.”
The process of restoring the court began back in 2007, with the initial push to earn Dr. Johnson (pictured above right, with Gibson) his rightful place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame – he was inducted in 2009 – and progressed from there, with grandson Lange Johnson eventually teaming with the USTA to make the project a reality.
“Seeing the court restored means everything to our family and the families of the over 200 children who benefited by being part of Dr. Johnson’s Junior Development Program,” said Lange. “That court was symbolic in that it was the launching pad in life for those who were fortunate enough to experience it.”
The work to rebuild the court is expected to be completed in August, in time for the 60th anniversary of Gibson’s 1957 U.S. Championships triumph. She was the first African-American, man or woman, to win a U.S. Championships singles crown, a feat she repeated a year later. She also won a French championship in 1956 and Wimbledon singles titles in 1957 and 1958.
“Dr. Johnson’s impact on tennis is an indelible part of our history,” said USTA President Katrina Adams, the first African-American and first former professional player to helm the association. “This is a fitting tribute, particularly as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Althea’s title and the 20th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Stadium, to restore this unique and incredibly important part of the tennis narrative.”
Nicknamed “Whirlwind” for his unyielding dedication to change and the way in which he barnstormed the country to promote the sport and break down the color barrier, Dr. Johnson was a seminal force in tennis. From the early 1940s until his death in 1971, he worked tirelessly to integrate the game and teach it to a host of future champions that, in addition to Ashe and Gibson, included Leslie Allen, Ann Koger, John Lucas, Robert Binns, Arthur Carrington, Lenny Simpson, Bonnie Logan and Juan Farrow, among others.
To help cultivate his young students, Dr. Johnson founded the American Tennis Association’s (ATA) Junior Development Program in 1951, a precursor to today’s tennis academies. He also regularly brought teams to the Junior Nationals in Kalamazoo, Mich., and held a camp at his home court in Virginia, drawing such tennis luminaries as Bobby Riggs, Pauline Betz and Manolo Santana to conduct clinics.
Renovating the court at his home on Pierce Street, his family said, is an important element in retelling those stories, of bringing that history back to life.
“This court represents a significant part of American history and civil rights,” said Robert Walter Johnson III, grandson to Dr. Johnson. “This is the court where the color line in tennis was changed forever.”