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Jumping the Net 

With skill and grace, Nehemiah Atkinson has redrawn the boundaries of tennis in New Orleans.

What is it about superior athletes, the champions, that compels us? Surely not just beauty, the apex of youth -- though of course that's a part of it. More is the sense we get of thought and action melded seamlessly, so we can see into the champion's heart, can apprehend character in motion.

New Orleans' own Nehemiah Atkinson recently won the Vets World Tennis Championship in the Men's Singles, 80-year-old and up division, on grass courts in Perth, Australia. This is a very long way from the asphalt courts of the Dryades Street YMCA where Atkinson got his start in the game.

It's not that he has outlived the best players of his generation: his 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 victory was over Bob Sherman of Santa Barbara, Calif., the No. 1 seed ("a tough man," says Atkinson), his nemesis for many years on the Vets circuit, and, in Perth, his roommate.

Nehemiah Atkinson was born in 1918 in Biloxi, the first of 10 children of Bishop C.C. and Josephine Atkinson. The family came to New Orleans just before the Depression, when Bishop C.C. was promoted in the Holiness Church to look after the multi-state diocese from here. "We were blessed, a family where everything was working," recalls Nehemiah. He was educated at the Thomy Lafon and J. W. Hoffman schools in New Orleans, and at the Louisiana Industrial Training High School in Farmerville.

When war came, he shipped out of the First Precinct at Tulane and Loyola avenues for infantry training, eventually finding himself in the Army's Black Corps of Engineers, 97th Regiment, building airstrips first at Puget Sound, Wash.; then to Valdez, Alaska., completing the Alcan Highway with the Canadians; and then, after medic training, sailing to the South Pacific to build airstrips in New Guinea, Buna Island and other locations in the Coral Sea. The long journey home at war's end culminated with a last leg on a segregated troop train out of Tyler, Texas, arriving in New Orleans on Dec. 25, 1945.

Out of the service with no jobs in sight, he started doing things at the Dryades Y, and they grew. He got guys to bring their checkers and chess games in out of the rain, to play a little ping pong. He got youngsters to play street tennis, knocking a ball around with Y equipment, and he got Coca Cola to sponsor it. This led to a night supervisor job at the bottling plant.

With eight friends, Atkinson formed the New Orleans Hard Court Tennis Club to organize and increase play at the Y's two courts and also at Xavier University's two cement courts. And he started teaching: $8 an hour, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

His first star pupil was Sharon Pettis, the first local African American to break into the National Junior Sugar Bowl tennis tournament, the important winter tennis event at Tulane University. "She got beat bad, and cried and cried -- but went on from there," Atkinson remembers. He helped her get a scholarship to play tennis on the Southern University men's team; and she eventually became the first black female tennis teacher at NORD.

This was the age of the pioneers of race relations, and Atkinson was up to the task at hand. Despite urine-filled tennis balls thrown at him. Bricks. Foot-fault calls. Speeches by self-important superintendents that began, "I've been watching you ... but there's too much riff-raff behind you." (To which Atkinson replied, "Seems like your side's got more ... .")

And always -- always -- as his playing career took off, and he won titles in Lafayette; Baton Rouge; Jackson, Miss.; and beyond: the separate arrangements for sleeping and eating. Even on his first trip to Australia not so very many years ago, where all the guys were doubled up ... but there's your room, Mr. Atkinson, down the hall.

Atkinson carefully spells the name of Harry Anisgard, a Jewish geologist with Esso, who in the 1960s sponsored his membership to the City Park Tennis Club, for which they booted him out. After a few months, they told Anisgard he could come back. So Atkinson sponsored him.

Atkinson long wrote a column called "Hard Court Tennis Notes" for the Louisiana Weekly, the only local journal covering important stories like the rocketing success of Althea Gibson, whom Atkinson recalls as "a real tomboy with those long, beautiful strokes." He was forever gathering photos and clippings, sending kids to tournaments ... all on a volunteer basis, with the lessons paying the way.

From the time he was 12, Arthur Ashe would come to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl season and be greeted at the station by Atkinson. Ashe's junior era ended with "the greatest match ever at Tulane," Atkinson remembers. "Arthur was down 5-0 in the second set to [the great Yugoslav] Nikki Pilic, and came all the way back. Then Arthur and Ron Homberg won the doubles."

When NORD needed a tennis professional for their City Park and Audubon locations, they sought advice from Philip Adam, son of VA Hospital Chief Louis Adam, who stated flatly that "Nehemiah Atkinson would be an excellent choice for the position." Later, in 1973, when NORD opened the Stern Tennis Center on Saratoga Street, Atkinson was named director, a position he held until his crowded retirement party at Gallier Hall in 1996.

From Stern, Atkinson was able to cast his net ever wider. Like, in 1977, when one Stern guest was asked about his New Orleans weekend the following night on the Johnny Carson show. "Where did you eat?" Carson asked Bill Cosby. "Oh, a place called Eddie's," replied Coz, who went on to describe his food. And what else did you do? "Oh, I played tennis with an old man." (Atkinson was almost 60.) Why? "I felt sorry for him." What happened? "I lost six-love, six-love."

Or the tournament in Lafayette where Atkinson gave the 5-year-old Chanda Rubin a racquet, showed her how to grip it and told her, "Now go get 'em!" Or when he was the keynote speaker at Van Der Meer's of Hilton Head the year that Ashe -- the previous year's keynote speaker -- had died. Atkinson stood up, asked for a minute of silence for Arthur Ashe, "and after the minute ... it was pandemonium," he recalls.

Everyone he's played tennis with has a favorite Atkinsonism. "Service!" he'll exclaim, touching the three balls in his left hand to his racquet strings, if he's felt anyone's attention drifting. "Thank you!" with friendly enthusiasm if you have donated him a point with a double fault. "That's a dandy!" you'll get, if you're lucky enough to have beaten him with a particularly pleasing ball. How he'll start chuckling in the midst of only the finest points. All gestures of a generous spirit as graceful as his many varied strokes.

"Yes, the win in Perth was a great one," says his friend Larry Kimbrough, who has been helping Atkinson while he's been sick -- he's had to cancel a trip to a tournament near Mount Ararat in Turkey. "But the real thing is the seeds he has left everywhere." So many fully grown now, from this mighty oak.

click to enlarge In the age of the pioneers of race relations, Nehemiah Atkinson was up to the task at hand. - JAMES BAKER
  • James Baker
  • In the age of the pioneers of race relations, Nehemiah Atkinson was up to the task at hand.
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