Tennis’ Dirty Little Secret

By Julian Johnson
Updated: August 30, 2007

R.W. Johnson (left) with Juan Farrow

R.W. Johnson (left) with Juan Farrow

NEW YORK — High atop a gray skyscraper on Wall Street, a tiny cabal was overheard by the cleaning crew, disparaging ” the black jellybeans that’ve taken over basketball, football and track.

We’ve beaten back the “Tiger Woods Affect” in golf, thank God. We’re importing Pedro’s from the DR to dilute the Leroy’s from South Central; by ’08, baseball will look like “1946” all over again. Tennis is a little iffy, we’ve got to hold onto tennis, we can’t let it go ghetto, we’ve got to make it genteel and clean again — and we will!”

Though tennis’ ruling class likely have not uttered these words, the sport is whiter than it was 30 years ago, in spite of all the feel-good diversity programs launched by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).

While commentators like tennis legend John McEnroe bemoan the dearth of topflight tennis talent in the USA and muse about a “Michael Jordan or an Allen Iverson with a tennis racket,” what steps are being taken to realize that dream?

“To understand the intent, look at the affect.”

Tennis’ dirty little secret — the game’s antipathy for the black athlete — came to mind as I pondered my grandfather, Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, one of the most important figures in the game of tennis was denied a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame — again.

If Duke Ellington’s mistress was music, tennis was Dr. Johnson’s paramour. Beginning in the 1940’s, Dr. J built a tennis court in his yard at 14th and Pierce Streets in Lynchburg to fuel his passion.

But he wanted to do more. He was motivated, like many of his colleagues, by a desire to dismantle segregation; why not use tennis as a tool to hasten Jim Crow’s downfall?

His quest began in 1946 when he found a struggling, undisciplined junior high school dropout and nurtured, trained and guided her development until she’d reached the segregated gates of Forest Hills, home of the United States Tennis Championships.

In 1950, they could deny her talent no longer and this woman became the first black person to play and win there. Althea Gibson would go on to win the U.S. Championships and Wimbledon (the British Championships), twice, and become the number one ranked player in the world.

Another Johnson pupil, Arthur Ashe, would also train on the doctor’s home tennis court in Lynchburg, for nine years — and become another unlikely champion.

Ashe too would validate Dr. Johnson’s eye for talent and program by becoming the first black man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and become the number one tennis player in the world.

Dr. Johnson didn’t stop there — he coached Juan Farrow, his next door neighbor, who would become the number one ranked 12 and 14 and under player in the country — another “Negro” first. Former touring pros and average Joe’s were among many other youth who trained on the dusty backyard clay court.

In fact, close to a hundred passed through his summer tennis boot camp from the 1940’s through 1971. They’ve become doctors, lawyers, and writers, educations begun on scholarships garnered through their tennis prowess. (Read: “Whirlwind: The Godfather of Black Tennis” by Doug Smith, a Dr. Johnson protege, for some of his remembrances and recollections).

Tennis couldn’t deny Althea and Arthur’s great talent and disciplined sidestepping of the racist landmines laid in their path; the backbone of Dr. J’s strategy for integrating the game was to find players with talent AND the discipline to keep their eyes on the prize…no matter what.

We had to be bigger and better than our white tennis opponents.

Long before Nick Bollettieri and the other tennis camp profiteers, Dr. Johnson created an amazing blueprint for developing black talent and utilizing those talented youngsters in a larger political strategy of integrating the society through undeniable excellence.

And it worked. Clearly, he left tennis better off than he had found it or did he?

There was no portly southern governor standing in the doorway of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island crowing, ” Segregation now, tomorrow and forever,” when Dr. J failed to make the cut for induction in 2008 — 37 years after his death.

The deed was accomplished without fanfare or bonfire, behind closed doors, politely, respectably. Suitable, i.e., connected, white nominees were found for the HOF’s “Contributor Category.”

How can it be that tennis has yet to honor one of its greatest architects?

I spoke about my grandfather at a USTA meeting in Northern California a couple of years ago. At one point I opined that I thought the USTA owed “tennis reparations” to the black tennis community for hindering the development of black players by its Jim Crow policies — and playing dirty tricks on us after we were “allowed” to compete in white tournaments.

This didn’t go over too well with the some of the bureaucrats present, who seemed to find my remarks more problematic than tennis’ track record.

Tennis had been integrated for 15 years by the time we Johnson kids began our tennis barnstorming with Dr. J and a couple of carloads of other black kids.

We played the integrated tennis circuit that my grandfather had worked long and hard to create. Black players at these events received a hazing reserved for uppity Negroes who didn’t know their proper place.

Snarls, stares and whispered condemnation were just some of the hospitality that let us know that we were NOT wanted. At the Southern Championships in Davidson, NC, I suffered my first overtly racist jab when some older white boy snarled at my white playmate, ” Why are you playing with that colored boy?!”

His words cut me, though we’d been drilled by my father and grandfather, to expect that and worse. I was nine years old. The sophisticated “standards and practices” of racist tennis officialdom back in the day included: the numerous times we’d show up at “sanctioned” events only to be told,

“We’re terribly sorry, but we didn’t receive your entry fee” or ” Your match was supposed to begin at 10 am, NOT 12 noon” or “ We didn’t mean to put your 12-year-old boy in the girls 16’s.”

Or, the regularity with which I had to play one of my brothers or one of the only other black kids in the draw in the first or second round. Eventually, my dad told us not to bother looking at the tournament draw sheet; he knew it could “psyche us out,” which was the intent of the draw’s designers.

The prevention of an all-black final at this “country club” events was akin to the FBI’s desire to “prevent the rise of a black messiah” to unite the masses.

The best win I ever had was against my junior nemesis, Rodney Harmon, who is now a bigwig with the USTA. But it too was in the first round of a nationally ranking tournament — the Port Washington Tennis Classic in New York.

It was weird driving all the way to Long Island from DC just to play someone from my backyard — and black. My third round opponent, Carl Williams was also a brother, in a draw of 128 players overwhelming white players. Perhaps this is what Oprah means by the “law of attraction.”

Meet Jeri Ingram; she filed a complaint with the NCAA National Women’s tennis tourney back in the late eighties. Seems Jeri had to play another black woman – Stacey Martin — in the first round, in spite of the fact that both had top-200 world rankings at the time.

How could two world ranked black women meet in the first round of the NCAA women’s tennis championship? Perhaps, the fact that the women’s draw was “closed” to the public, unlike its male tennis counterpart, had something to do with it.

I’ll never forget the emotions that shot through me when Serena Williams won the U.S. Open in 1999. 40 some years after Althea had won Forest Hills and 25 years after Arthur won Wimbledon, there was Serena putting her hand over her heart and mouthing the words, ” I can’t believe it.”

That two African American men had been instrumental in this success (Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson and Richard Williams) and done it “their way” — was extraordinary.

That Serena and her sister, Venus, had survived Compton’s poverty and desperation, with grace and guts to reach the summit of tennis was miraculous.

But their presence on the summit is not met with universal acclaim. Fast forward to 2007; Serena, suffering severe leg cramps that caused her to tumble to the grass court in agony, guts out an amazing third round Wimbledon win over Daniela Hantuchova.

The BBC tennis expert, former tour player Michael Stich and McEnroe, the boorish brat, however, accused Serena of faking the extent of her injury in an attempt to upset her opponent — while leading the match!

Shortly thereafter, the Guardian of London had a long comment thread where one person after another spoke of how Serena had set back the game by her unsportsmanlike display.


How did these soothsayers sneak into Serena’s body and divine the proper level of demonstrativeness required for the pain that she felt? If it had been any other tennis player (other than Venus), the full benefit of the doubt would have been granted.

But this was Serena, which meant guilty until proven innocent.

The media character assassins who have hacked into the Williams sisters effigies since their ballyhooed arrival, are following the cues set by the tennis cognoscenti who define who is ethnically acceptable and who isn’t.

Venus and Serena Williams are the folkloric “bad Negro;” willful, uncontrollable, impudent. They don’t “compliment their opponents enough,” or “smile enough,” or “do the other player’s laundry.” They are despised with a smile and justifications that mystify and de-race the racism oozing out of the white tennis body politic.

African American black male tennis star, James Blake, on the other hand, has a “J-Block” full of white fans that “appreciate” his modesty, super-humility and his propensity for underachievement.

He is the highest ranked African American male player since Ashe and is beloved by the white media and tennis establishment — precisely because he fails at exactly the right moment.

Exhibit A: the 2004 US Open where he destroyed icon Andre Agassi — for two sets. Taking the phrase, “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” to dizzying heights, Blake squandered a two-set lead and the match in a fifth set tiebreaker that seemed almost scripted.

And when, in the post match interview following his defeat he said: ” If I had to lose to anybody, I’m glad it was Andre,” Blake’s J-Block rating went solar.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Blake and wish him well, however, his performance and persona is the price tennis exacts from its black players in order to be “fully accepted” in tennis’ elite circles. I submit that that is no acceptance at all.

My grandfather’s lack of recognition 36 years after his death is a disgrace; and the treatment of black tennis players for generations is symptomatic of this culture’s ambivalence toward the black athlete, towards black people.

Barry Bonds and Michael Vick might be arrogant scofflaws, but you only need half a brain to see how black missteps are like Creatine for the egos and careers of Joe Six-pack and the sportswriters who spoon-feed them.

Currently, I’m marveling at the coverage of Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this summer of the Portland Trail Blazers. Oden seems like a very charming, humble young man, yet, all of the hosannas and hallelujahs regarding Oden’s refreshing humility mask the super-narcissism, ethnocentrism and racism of those applauding him. Must we all be, do and act stereotypically white — in order to get something akin to backhanded appreciation and props?

Dr. Johnson was no militant, but he certainly wasn’t one of those grinning, word-chewing servile Negroes who beg boss for a handout. And he wasn’t trying to be white.

He was a rainmaker who made BIG things happen for black people shackled by second-class citizenship. He pursued black excellence and changed many lives. He created programs, processes and opportunities that tennis bureaucrats at the USTA of today can’t manage on a thousand times the budget.

Dr. J’s work and life shames what the USTA and the Hall of Fame claim to stand for and he reminds them of what they could be, but aren’t. It makes sense that they would not want a reminder of their deficiencies nestled within their Hall of Champions.

Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson doesn’t need their validation. If he taught me anything it was that we can and must do it ourselves.