A Look Back At ‘Whirlwind’: The Godfather Of Black Tennis

By Tony McClean
Updated: November 11, 2004

EDITORS NOTE: The subject of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson’s surprising omission from the International Tennis Hall of Fame was discussed earlier this week on “Black Athlete Sports Unlimited”.

Known as “Whirlwind” during his day, Dr. Johnson was a teacher and mentor for tennis legends Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Today, BASN takes a look back at this legendary figure in a book review of his life that first appeared on the site back in November of 2005.

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — When talking about the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport, the names Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe easily come up in conversation.

The Venus and Serena of her day, the late Ms. Gibson became the first black player to win at Wimbledon in 1957. That same year, Gibson was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of The Year.

Ashe took the U.S. Men’s Clay Court title in 1967 and the U.S. Men’s Single’s Title in 1968. Later that year, he won the U.S. Open title, becoming the top ranked player in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA).

Much like Ms. Gibson, Ashe, who would later win Wimbledon in 1975 and serve as U.S. Davis Cup Captain, defeated the notion of white superiority in this sport by earning the title of “tennis champion”.

However, the seeds of their play would begin to grow under the tutilage of a strong-willed, but soft spoken pioneer. You may not have heard of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, but now a new book by author Doug Smith tells you his important story.

“Whirlwind: The Godfather of Black Tennis” is a biography on the life of the this great tennis pioneer. Dr. Johnson was a physician who built a tennis court in his backyard in Lynchburg, Va. He trained and developed promising black tennis players – including Ashe and Gibson – in the 1940s and 1950s.

Smith, a former sports writer for USA Today, had previously attempted to put together this book about Johnson as far back as 1983. Upon his retirement in 2001 from the newspaper, Smith would begin to put together this informative tale about Dr. Johnson.

Smith had previously served as a co-author of “Zina, My Life in Women’s Tennis”, the life story of former tennis pro Zina Garrison. In “Whirlwind”, Smith spoke with several members of Dr. Johnson’s family and friends who offer a unique insight on the man.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Johnson recruited the best black junior tennis players in the country to train under his guidance. All of this under his backyard tennis court.

Not only did Dr. Johnson mentor his players on the game of tennis, he also taught the rules of life. Etiquette, honesty, sportsmanship, and self-control were among Dr. Johnson’s litany of daily lessons he taught.

Also in a separate chapter, Smith details his role while serving at USA Today during the Arthur Ashe AIDS controversy. Back in 1992, the national newspaper was one of the first media outlets to report the story of Ashe’s illness.

All in all, this book is a great insight to one of greatest, but least publicized black pioneers of sport. It also serves as a reminder of how hard work and determination can pay off for anyone and everyone.

You don’t have to be a fan of the sport of tennis to enjoy this fine book.