The former athlete and event promoter talks tennis foundation, summer clinic

Before there was Serena Williams, there was Althea Gibson.

Gibson became the first African American to compete in the United States National Championships (now the U.S. Open), and the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956.

Gibson was able to hone her skills through participation in the American Tennis Association (ATA), an African American sports organization founded in 1916 in response to the national ban on black players. Under the ATA umbrella, tennis groups and tournaments were created all over the country.

In Columbus, generations of black tennis players thrived in clubs at Beatty Community Center and Wolfe Park, which is currently the site of junior tennis program Ace with Love.

“At any point in time during the summer, you could see 70 to 80 kids on the tennis court for [the last] 24 years,” said Ace with Love founder Ed Amos.

Years ago, Bobby Ferguson was one of those kids.

“It was an opportunity for me to see kids of my complexion playing tennis,” said Ferguson, who grew up in South Linden. “I got to meet some cool people and I just really took a liking to it.”

Starting the sport as a young teen, Ferguson was behind in skill level. But through intense practice, private lessons and support from his family, he soon became an impressive athlete.

“[He was] a very talented player,” said Amos, who still thinks of the 42-year-old Ferguson as one of his “juniors.” “He was very high-ranked in the city.”

As a result of his hard work, Ferguson joined the Ohio State University team as a walk-on.

“I was determined to do it,” he said. “I proved to myself that I can compete with the best of them.”

Today, Ferguson — also an accomplished event promoter — is the founder of the 22nd Foundation, which gives youth in need the same opportunity he had to flourish in tennis and other sports. Proceeds from Ferguson's third-annual Summer614 Fest, taking place at Columbus Commons Saturday, June 1, will go to scholarships for two young tennis players in the city.

But Ferguson's road to starting the foundation was full of detours and hurdles. For example, he left the OSU tennis team after one year because, as he explained it, “I found another love.”

Ferguson was introduced to event promotion by a friend. They invested all of their money in a show in Louisville, Kentucky, that was supposed to include R&B and hip-hop acts Total, Joe, the Lox and even Missy Elliott. But the show fell though at the hands of a promoter they'd trusted to handle the negotiations and contracts.

“That was a turning point for me,” Ferguson said. “I turned to my best friend and I said, ‘I can do this by myself.'”

Ferguson started booking comedy shows at OSU, then graduated to promoting after-parties for R&B singer Ginuwine's national tour in the late '90s. One of his biggest accomplishments was producing the Original Superstars of Hip-Hop Tour, which ran for multiple years at the now-demolished Cooper Stadium in Columbus. The event brought in acts like KRS-One, Digital Underground, MC Lyte and Biz Markie, who gave Ferguson his nickname: Bobby Fame.

“People still call me ‘Fame' to this day,” said Ferguson, who went on to open the now-closed Icon Lounge Downtown.

Then, he stumbled.

Unwise decisions and running with the wrong crowd landed him in prison on a drug-related charge.

“It was God's divine purpose to put you in a situation to where you had to rethink your surroundings,” Ferguson said. “Being incarcerated was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It showed me so much.”

At the start of his sentence, a fellow inmate gave him some critical advice: “You can make it a fool's playground or a wise man's college.”

Ferguson took the latter option, studying and preparing himself for success. Upon re-entry, he returned to tennis. Though he'd never stopped coaching neighborhood kids and family members (his teenage nephew became a state champion last year), he saw an even greater purpose through the 22nd Foundation, which he started in 2014.

And this summer, he will host an open clinic each week for kids ages 8-14 at Blackburn Community Center in Olde Towne East.

“I'm just giving them the access and the opportunity,” said Ferguson, who also manages the Pelican Room venue Downtown and organizes the Columbus Soul festival.

“It's very difficult to find people that will go back into the community and say, ‘I want to give you something that you don't have,'” Amos said of Ferguson. “Once in a while, you'll find somebody who really wants to play the game. … And he'll be able to direct them.”

Today, Ferguson's parties and festivals take on a greater meaning in service of his foundation.

“I want people to know that when they support me, it's bigger than just monetary,” he said. “It's trying to create a community legacy.”