The North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame recently recognized Fred Robinson for his decades-long dominance on the court that includes an enviable laundry list of accomplishments such as being ranked No.1 in the world for his age group on multiple occasions in both singles and doubles.
But, unlike most top senior-level players he’s competing against, Robinson didn’t get his start dominating through the high school and college ranks.
In fact, Robinson had never picked up a racquet until a chance encounter on the campus of Manatee Junior College changed his life forever.
He was 21, teaching martial arts and fresh out of the 101st Airborne. Robinson was tough, cocky and intrigued when he saw tennis players trying out for the college team.
Growing up in Vermont, he knew nothing about tennis. However, when a buddy told him there were college scholarships available and open tryouts for walk-ons coming up in just a few days, Robinson vowed to try out for the team.
“I was Happy Gilmore times 10. I didn’t play any junior tennis at all,” Robinson said.
His buddy lent him a racquet, but Robinson was so unused to the sport he swung it at first with the press still attached to his wooden racquet. His buddy laughed, told him the right way to swing and Robinson was ready to make things happen.
He showed up at the tryouts a little disheveled and wearing attire not fit for a future hall-of-famer.
That day, one of the coaches told him to come to the lower court to hit a few balls for the open tryout.
Robinson didn’t know what he was doing, but he was “a pretty good hitter” on the baseball diamond, so he promptly parked two of them over the fence.
As the guys already on the Manatee JC tennis team laughed, Robinson bowed up with his military background and challenged them.
“I was teaching at West Point when I was 18, and I was one of the youngest sergeants there, so I was pretty intense, to say the least. I was Gomer Pyle in your face. We were pretty bad @$$,” he said. “I hadn’t adjusted to this whole civilian thing, so I start walking to them thinking I’m in my beret and ‘OK, you guys are laughing at me? This will not work.’ When I said I walked across the courts, I walked right in front of where people were playing. Etiquette was like a foreign word to me. It didn’t mean anything to me.”
Robinson didn’t make the team that summer for obvious reasons. He didn’t know what the lines on the court meant, how to keep score, how to hold a racquet properly, where to hit the ball and he had a bit of a “John McEnroe-like” anger issue to work on for starters.
He has worked on all of that and perfected his game. Robinson has gone on to win two sportsmanship awards, which are his proudest accomplishments, when he was crowned National Gil Roberts Sportsmanship Award and the National Armistead Neely Sportsmanship Award winner.
“I’m most proud of those hands down,” he said. “Last year, I received the Armstead Neely, and he’s a personal friend of mine. He’s a very accomplished, highly respected player so to win that trophy with his name on it, it’s by far the coolest thing that I have.”
He’s in the hall of fame for more than his sportsmanship, Robinson has perfected his game literally from the ground up.
After that inauspicious debut at the college tryout, the coach explained that Robinson needed an understanding of the rules, but mostly he needed lessons.
He got lucky when he was recommended to Mike DePalmer Sr., a renowned coach in the Bradenton, Fla. area and a former legendary head man at the University of Tennessee.
With his guidance, Robinson began to enter professional tournaments – with no experience – getting beat 6-0, 6-0 routinely.
“I never played novice, intermediate or anything,” he said. “I just went out there and got whacked.”
But, he figured he should learn from watching the best rather than play with average competition, so he took his lumps and took them hard.
Slowly, though, he was getting better.
“I wanted to watch good players, see how they stroke the ball and let them be the example,” he said. “That was going to be the way I learned. I didn’t want to learn from my friends. They were all nuts.”
Eventually, Robinson started winning. He doesn’t remember his first win, but his list of accomplishments is strong.
Robinson, 66 years old, is a 76-time World and U.S. champion, a U.S. National Grand Slam title holder in both singles and doubles and an eight-time Atlanta Senior Invitational pro tournament singles champ.
He’s been ranked the No.1 singles and doubles in the United States senior division multiple times, was recognized as player of the year in the men’s open in North Carolina and Florida and is an eight-time undefeated champion in the ITF World Team Competition. He also holds an ITF World Champion title in both Austria and South Africa.
During his 30-year career, Robinson has been recognized as a two-time winner of the USTA Southern Slew Hester Player of the Year and as the best senior tournament player of the year.
This season, Robinson is 29-3, his best mark ever, in the men’s 65-and-older division.
Through Olde Providence Country Club, where he is a member and just one of a half-dozen N.C. Hall of Fame members, there are six to 10 guys who have moved up together and become friends, although they are each other’s biggest competitors. He also plays with people much younger.
When Robinson goes to tournaments, which are year-round, his dominance is due to other factors as well.
“I go to tournaments, walk on the court and the guy I’m playing will run until he goes dead,” Robinson said. “Now, unfortunately, sometimes the guy is 20 pounds overweight, he’s not in shape and he hasn’t been practicing. He didn’t have the will to train that I do. Now once he shows up, he’s going to try as hard as he can, but that’s the difference. Some guys go to compete for the competition and the social, and that’s great. But there’s some guys who are there to contend who contend for a title. That’s a little group of four to six guys and it’s a little, small group.”
Robinson is certainly among the latter crowd. The N.C. Hall of Fame player is currently playing some of his best tennis as he wears his opponents down on a regular basis.
He’s looking forward to the Category 2 Nationals which are coming up, followed by the National 65+ over in Mission Hills, Calif., but Robinson spaces six to 10 tournaments in a year strategically to maximize his training and minimize burnout and injury.
Robinson also owns Body Helix, a veteran-owned, U.S.-based and manufactured, medical compression company that produces compression sleeves and wraps to the highest standard. He’s owned that company since 2008, and many top players and athletes around the world are clients.
Robinson is too, but when he steps on the court, he’s only there for one reason.
“I don’t really focus on details, but instead I focus deeply on the process,” he said. “That’s where all of my attention and focus goes. I’ve been ranked No.1 in the country and had a buddy talking about the rankings. I didn’t know I was No.1. I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on my training and doing the work.”