Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hall of Shame?

by Savannah

Thanks to GVGirl on TAT for bringing this article to my attention.

If you're a regular reader of this space you'll know I've done a couple of posts about the ignoring of Ricardo "Pancho" Gonzalez by the tennis establishment.

If you're a tennis fan you've heard of Nick Bollettieri, Rick Macci and others who have now legendary tennis academies. It's highly unlikely you've heard about Dr. R. Walter ("Whirlwind") Johnson who was responsible for shaping not only Althea Gibson but Arthur Ashe. His nomination to the ITHF at Newport fell short this year.

Here's an excerpt from an article posted on BlackAthlete Sports Network by Doug Smith. Let's hope the men and women who vote on the nominees honor this black man who is responsible for honing the grace and competitive spirit of the man whose name adorns the largest tennis stadium in the world and the woman who was given an opening night ceremony that will not be forgotten.

From the early 50s until his death in 1971, Whirlwind sponsored and nurtured hundreds of African American juniors, including Gibson and Ashe, the only black players who have been inducted into the ITHF. During the era of racial segregation, no one did more to change the face, if not the heart, of the tennis world than the soft-spoken, tough-as-nails physician.

I was 18 years old when I met Whirlwind in 1960 at his Lynchburg, Va. home, where he had built a tennis court in his backyard. I was among a group of black juniors, including a skinny kid from Richmond, Va. named Ashe, invited to train together on Whirlwind's backyard court before competing at the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) Interscholastic Championships in Charlottesville, Va.

For two weeks, I enjoyed the comfort of his home, three meals a day and -- as far as I knew -- the best training conditions for juniors anywhere. Rackets were strung free of charge, new clothes and shoes were provided when needed, and we always started practice sets with new balls. His backyard training camp was a prelude to the high-tech training academies/camps, such as those now run by tennis gurus Nick Bollettieri, Rick Macci and former champion Chris Evert.

Because he wanted us to be accepted as people, as well as players, he also gave us lessons in humility. Recognizing that tennis fans occasionally might be as insulting and dangerous as some baseball fans were to Jackie Robinson. Whirlwind indoctrinated his young guests with a variation of the turn-the-other-cheek philosophy that Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey instilled in Robinson.
Years later, when I learned that Whirlwind had operated his backyard training camp for more than 20 years, I decided to document his life story. The task, which took 20 years to complete, was published two years ago. It's entitled Whirlwind: The Godfather of Black Tennis.

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