ROCKFORD — Five area tennis players have finished higher at state than Dick Johnson, who placed fifth for Auburn in 1962.
Even more have played NCAA Division I tennis in college, while Johnson played Division III at Kalamazoo. (Although he may be the only local tennis player in his college hall of fame for two sports, being honored for both baseball and tennis at Kalamazoo).
Although extremely good as a young man, Dick Johnson, unlike every other player on Rockford’s greatest tennis player list, earned most of his tennis fame later in life.
As a senior player, he beat a Wimbledon champ — Alex Olmedo, who beat Rod Laver in straight sets to win Wimbledon in 1959. He also teamed with NIU doubles great Tom Gullickson to beat Australian legends Laver and Roy Emerson — who won a combined 45 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles to win an exhibition match at Rock Valley College. And Johnson, who died last year at age 74, won 44 USTA age-group titles, including 14 in singles, and was the No. 1-ranked 70-and-over player in the world in 2016.
He is our pick as the No. 1 greatest men’s tennis player in Rockford-area history.
“You would watch him play and he had his shots planned out,” said his older brother, Herb, 78, who choked back tears talking about his brother. “He knew where they were going to be returned and he knew where he was going to put them. It was a mental game. It wasn’t just wham, bam, slam.”
Dick and Herb didn’t spend much time together after Dick left Rockford 35 years ago after being the head pro at the now-defunct Clock Tower Resort for 13 years He moved to be the head tennis pro for 30 years at the St. Louis Country Club, and is now a member of the St. Louis Hall of Fame as well.
But the two had paired up again in recent years in pickleball. Dick Johnson had a hip replaced three months before he died in April of 2019, but had a full national and international tennis and pickleball schedule planned out.
“Tennis was my high school sport, then when I retired I tried to take it up but didn’t have the legs for it. I started playing pickleball,” said Herb, who teamed with Dick to qualify for nationals twice in pickleball. “At the end, it was really going to be a great thing when we got together in a sport. That’s what we were doing in pickleball. He and I were going to play doubles 75-and-over at the national senior games. I was never able to follow his tennis a lot, because he was in St. Louis and I was in Rockford.”
Dick Johnson wasn’t just in St. Louis in his later years. He traveled all around the world to play tennis. In 2015, the year he won the 70-and-over world title, Johnson played in a league in southwest Germany, playing four matches for a club in Karlsdorf over the summer, and then heading back to Berlin for the league playoffs in September. He won eight world-wide 70-and-over tourneys that year, including events in Germany, Austria, Croatia and the Czech Republic. Johnson, also played on USTA teams in tourneys as far away as Australia. He finished with a career singles record of 220-33 in USTA events and 65-11 in doubles.
“The thing I hear most now is what a gentleman he was,” his brother said. “All the time, win or lose. And a little bit of a sense of humor, kind of dry. Tom Gullickson told a story at Dick’s celebration of life. Dick was upset with a line call. The umpire asked, ‘Are you questioning my judgment.’ Dick said, ‘No, I am questioning your eyesight.’ That was the kind of humor he was good for.”
Dick Johnson took one stab at playing tennis professionally for his career, but became a teaching pro instead after a short time on the minor-league satellite circuit.
“That was in the real early days of the satellite tournaments,” Dick Johnson told the Register Star in 2016. “There was no prize money. If you were a big enough name, you could get free housing or a few hundred dollars. I never even got that. I played six or seven tournaments one summer. I was used to playing indoors at the old Clock Tower, but most of the tournaments were on clay. I had no experience on clay at that time. Now I have a lot, but then I was clueless. It did not go well.”
“He also had a wife and two kids at home,” Herb Johnson said. “Dick told me, ‘You had to go out there without those kind of responsibilities to be able to focus the way you needed to focus.”
Instead, Dick Johnson helped generations of kids become better tennis players, including many of the top players in Rockford for 13 years.
“Dick Johnson was the primary professional who taught me how to play,” said Brent Bernardi, who won three straight NIC-10 doubles titles (then Big Nine) with two-time state singles runner-up Tracy Fenelon from 1978-80. “I attribute the style of game I have and my strokes to Dick Johnson.
“He was like an Arthur Ashe, super traditional, super smooth, always in the right position on the tennis court, almost effortlessly beating people. He would serve and volley and he was a tall man, so he covered the court, but his strokes were just text-book perfect.”
And he taught the game almost as well as he played it.
“You only needed a half-hour lesson with Mr. Johnson to get your money’s worth,” Bernardi said. “There was no goofing off. It was all business. But you learned a lot and you got one heck of a lesson in that 30 minutes.”
The teacher was also a student, who put his own lessons to good use on the tennis court.
“He kept playing and he kept working on his game,” said Ron Balsam, who has coached one 50-and-over and two 60-over Rockford teams to USTA nationals. “He never stropped trying to improve.”
“He was a phenomenal player,” said Pat Wickes, who coached Harlem to its only NIC-10 (then Big Nine) tennis title in 1973 before moving to Texas, where he became a hall of fame coach at Odessa Permian. “He did well in high school, but then he really came on from college on. He was a fabulous player.”
And he is fabulously missed.
“You can’t say enough good things about the guy,” Balsam said when Johnson died two years ago. “He was a great gift to the tennis community and the world as a whole.”
About This Series
The Rockford Register Star is running a daily retrospective on the greatest area athletes of the past 75 years in every IHSA sport fielded by local high schools. We have already listed our greatest football players and boys and girls basketball players. Now we are running our boys tennis list.
All of the greatest athletes are chosen by Matt Trowbridge with input from NIC-10 History Book founder Alex Gary, plus other area experts and fans.
No. 10: Julian Bruening, West
No. 9: John Torrence, West
No. 8: Mark Saunders, West
No. 7: Branden Metzler, Auburn
No. 6: Derek Rasheed, Freeport
No. 5: Brandon Ancona, Rockford Christian
No. 4: Kevin Park, Guilford
No. 3: Dan Wickse, West
No. 2: Tracy Fenelon, Guilford
No. 1: Dick Johnson, Auburn