Tennis historians have long lauded the noble efforts of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe in breaking down racial barriers in the sport. But without the guidance and encouragement of Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, Gibson, Ashe, and countless other African Americans would have been denied the opportunity to play tennis, therefore dashing not only tennis hopes and dreams, but a myriad of personal growth benefits that come with athletics – not to mention college scholarships.
For more than two decades, Dr. Johnson trained, coached, and mentored African Americans from his home tennis court in Lynchburg, Virginia. He established the Junior Development program for the American Tennis Association in 1951 and worked tirelessly behind the scenes to provide opportunities for all competitors, ultimately emerging as a towering figure in the game’s evolution.
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“Whirlwind” Johnson’s grandson, Lange Johnson, accepted the honor for his late grandfather’s induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.
Speaking to the Doctor’s will, Lange touched on a variety of topics, none greater than Whirlwind’s belief that “It can be done,” no matter the obstacle. Seeing great raw talent and forming them into great tennis players, “It can be done.” No integration in the top ranks of tennis, “It can be done.” No state-of-the-art facility and equipment for African-American players? “It can be done.”
Three great tennis players’ names are on Whirlwind’s tombstone – Althea, Arthur and Juan. All greats in their own right, all proving that “It can be done.”
Without Whirlwind, neither Althea Gibson nor Arthur Ashe would have become the first African-Americans to win major tennis titles. Both acknowledged the significance of his role in their development several times during their storied lives.
Dr. Johnson was a major force in the careers of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, through his guidance, training and generosity. He also helped many other players on the tour through his wisdom and generous ways.
Needless to say, our sport, our country, indeed the world community became a better place because of Althea and Arthur’s achievements. Dr. Johnson made it possible for them to succeed. His extraordinary role should be remembered, appreciated and applauded not just by African Americans, but also by everyone who strives for equality and justice.
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