Robert Johnson Jr. heads 2020 BTHF class

For more than two decades, Robert W. Johnson Jr. presided over the instruction at the tennis boot camp in the back yard of his legendary father’s Lynchburg, Va., home. In 1955, he teamed with his dad to win the National Father and Son Doubles Championship.

On July 4, Johnson will join his dad, Dr. Robert W. “Whirlwind” Johnson, as a member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. He heads a 2020 class of selectees who will be honored at the BTHF’s 12th annual induction ceremony capping a weekend celebration at the Sportsmen’s tennis and Enrichment Center in Dorchester, Mass.

Robert W. Johnson Jr., who passed in November of 2018, will be inducted as a pioneer/contributor. His dad, affectionately known as Dr. J, was among the Black Tennis Hall of Fame’s original class of inductees in 2008. A year later, Dr. J was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The father and son were instrumental in breaking down the racial barriers in amateur and professional tennis. Among the scores of talented black players who came under their tutelage were Althea Gibson, the first black to win a major tennis tournament; and Arthur Ashe, the first black male player to win a major championship.

Nearly 200 promising young players honed their skills at the Lynchburg camp. While Dr. J tended to his medical practice by day, Robert W. Johnson Jr. who led the training, applying a teaching method he developed from the books, magazines and other instructional material his dad had bought but never had much time to read, according to his son Robert W. Johnson III.

“He studied tennis like it was a science and taught it the same way,” he told me in an email. “He applied his knowledge of physics and geometry to the process and settled on the Eastern grip as the best way to learn the game…He taught thousands of people.”

Classic backhand
Robert Johnson Jr. showing how to hit a backhand.

The Black Tennis Hall of Fame is an online archive founded in 2007 by New York entrepreneur and tennis enthusiast Dale Caldwell. Nominees are selected for their achievements in one or more of four categories: player, individuals who have had outstanding success on the tennis court; contributor, individuals who have overcome race and/or class obstacles to make significant contributions to the sport; pioneer, individuals who have either had outstanding success on the tennis court or had made exceptional contributions to the sport before passage of civil rights legislation in 1964; regional legend, individuals who have committed their lives to growing the sport in their communities.

In addition to Robert Johnson Jr., the following selectees also will be inducted into the BTHF at its July 4 ceremony:

Irwin R. Holmes – Also selected as a pioneer, Holmes won the North Carolina high school singles and doubles championships in 1956, then went on to become the first black athlete of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) as a member of the North Carolina State University tennis team. In his senior year, he became the first black to serve as co-captain of an ACC varsity squad.

In 1960, he became the first black to receive an undergraduate degree from NC State. He later earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering, which led to a long career at RCA and IBM. In 2018, NC State renamed the University College Commons after Holmes.

Tina McCall – McCall will be honored as a contributor for her tireless work as the founder of the Denton Johnson Tennis Corporation, a non-profit that develops young tennis players in the Orlando area who otherwise would have no chance to play and compete in the sport. She is overseeing the construction of a youth tennis and education complex that will provide classrooms and tennis courts for kids after school.

Alice Marble — Marble, a white woman who became the first woman to win British and U.S. singles, doubles and mixed doubles championships in the same year, will be recognized as a contributor for her efforts to end segregation in tennis. In 1950, she wrote an editorial published in American Tennis Magazine that chastised the United States Tennis and Lawn Association’s policy of excluding blacks. That is considered the door-opener for Althea Gibson.

“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites,” Marble wrote. “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”

Joe G. Goldthreate – In 1980, Goldthreate founded the Hadley Park Junior Tennis Development Program in Nashville, Tenn., with seven young players. All them progressed to attend major universities; three of them played on the professional circuit. In addition to tennis skills, his program taught self-esteem, honesty, discipline and self-respect.

By 1998, Goldthreate’s program had expanded to 14 parks. Over the 40 years since its inception, his program has helped more than 500 tennis students obtain scholarships to such colleges and universities as Fisk, Vanderbilt, Alabama A&T, Florida A&M, Tennessee State and the University of Memphis.

The program attracts visitors from all over the country. Goldthreate will be inducted as a regional legend.

“Joe teaches his students that hard works pays off,” reads the profile posted on the BTHF website. “You have to practice, practice and practice. If you put in the time, put in the effort, put in the work, you’ll reap the benefit.”

Goldthreate was not alone in that belief. Robert W. Johnson Jr. also preached hard work and discipline.

After leaving Lynchburg and settling in Washington, D.C., Johnson established a junior development program and taught dozens of youngsters long after his father passed in 1971.

“He was an amazing coach,” Robert Johnson III shared in his email. “He could diagnose a problem in anyone’s game and fix it. He didn’t just teach technique. He taught strategy, too, and could tell you how to successfully negotiate the net without getting passed in singles and doubles, and how to serve to certain spots to open the court. We had the most deliberate practice when we were kids, and it made all the difference in beating players.”







4 thoughts on “Robert Johnson Jr. heads 2020 BTHF class

  1. Great article honouring those who have paved a way for us to learn, live, enjoy, and pioneer in tennis. As a student of Coach Bobby Johnson, I remember his lessons of physics on the court and is why I still use these methods in teaching novice players today, when I have time to instruct. He gave this Black kid an opportunity to learn tennis while he taught a young kid who came from a economically middle to upper class family. While his family paid lessons, Coach Bobby Johnson instructed me to keep the ball across the net and to listen to him without any feedback, except to say that I understood or not. It was his discipline on the court that taught me to observe, listen, apply, and practice. One thing in particular that really impressed me on the court at a young age, was his perspective on the court. He told me to avoid deficit-based thinking. One example was…when hitting a ball across the net, instead of trying to make sure the ball does not go out, he taught me to think of hitting past the service line. That way, I would not have any limits to my game and the ball usually remained deep when I hit it. I still practice this and teach this today even in my daily life. Tennis, he taught me, was symbolic to our every day life. There are no limits. The only limits are the ones we place on ourselves. Honestly, I wish I had one more lesson with him and hope that he and his dad are partnered once again in that heavenly game of tennis.


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