Thursday, September 10, 2015

The life and times of the West Side Tennis Club

West Side Tennis Club gate.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise Tennis blog
I was not quite sure what I was hoping for when I wandered into the West Side Tennis Club but immediately upon entering I felt smacked in the face by history. This was, after all, the home of the US Open for many, many years, and pretty much everyone who is anyone played there. Even if it was a bit of a struggle for some.

But the West Side Tennis Club is no relic. It is still home to a thriving tennis community. One with plans.

"The old-time tennis club that you remember is no longer," said Bob Ingersole, the native Sydneysider who has served as director of tennis for the past 13 years and who was kind enough to walk me around the grounds in between raindrops yesterday morning. Ingersole and the board and staff are hard at work making the facilities contemporary and attractive to new generations of tennis lovers.

Intimate scale

It's nearly impossible to imagine how a behemoth like the Open could exist at a quaint establishment like the West Side Tennis Club. The grounds are lovely, but there's no space for the Yonex tent, and the Heineken restaurant, and the Emirates Airlines whack-a-mole booth, and the ESPN and Eurosport studios, and of course the new Grandstand. It just couldn't come close to handling the throngs that its fellow Queens facility, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, accommodates. (Although it actually has more courts than its successor US Open host, 38 to 33.)

But, per Ingersole, the 1978 intraborough move didn't happen without some hurt feelings. There was "anger" among the club members, he says, but the USTA "absolutely" did the right thing.

Bob Ingersole and his club.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise tennis blog
The pull of history 

The history that was made at the West Side Tennis Club was remarkable - and at times less than savory. It got its name because it was formerly located on the West Side of Manhattan. According to Ingersole, the developers of the planned community of Forest Hills (previously only farmland) encouraged the club's move in the early 20th century, and soon thereafter the US National Championships moved there. In 1950, Althea Gibson did the unthinkable-to-many when she broke the club's color barrier and became the first black player to compete at the tournament.

Seven years later, Gibson won the tournament. But two years after that, the club made national headlines when it was revealed that the president of the club had told Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche that neither Negroes nor Jews were permitted to be members of the club. (That president, Wilfred Burglund, resigned five days into the controversy.) And nine years after that, Arthur Ashe won the first US Open.

The club continued to make history: Equal prize money for women. First grand slam night matches.
First use of a tiebreak for matches. The switch from grass to clay for the last couple of years before the move to Corona Park.

(Ingersole said USTA historian Warren Kimball has a book on American tennis history coming out in the next few months that will cover the ins and outs of the troubles and triumphs of the club and much, much, much more. I'm excited.)

The present and future

Since the Open's exit, the club has seen its share of "big tennis" - whether Davis Cup finals or the erstwhile ATP Challenger or the erstwhile WTA event or Little Mo or just hosting pros who practice there during the US Open. A few years ago, the landmark stadium had fallen into a state of disrepair, but recently it's been revitalized thanks to a successful concert series. It started in 2013 with Mumford & Sons and later this month will feature the Alabama Shakes. Other acts recall the stadium's past glories: James Taylor performed there last month, 51 years after the Beatles did. (Taylor was the first non-British act signed to the Beatles' Apple Records.)

Forest Hills Stadium. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise tennis blog

Moving forward, Ingersole says the club is looking toward expanding the sporting facilities and installing a museum and archives for American tennis history. But its first and main concern is maintaining, building, and serving a strong membership base.

Ingersole calls his club "a diamond in the middle of New York" and it's easy to see why. 2 MTA express trains stop a couple of blocks away, meaning it's 15 minutes to Midtown Manhattan. A LIRR stop is right there, too. The club has four different surfaces (red clay, Har-Tru, grass, and hard) and puts a bubble over several courts in the winter for indoor play.

Most enticingly, just being there you get a sense of continuity with the elegance and turbulence of America's tennis past. I walked into this club the day after James Blake was tackled and arrested outside his hotel in Manhattan for having the temerity to look sort of like another guy who happened also to be black. I walked out with a renewed hope that by learning about, and from, our history, we can figure out ways to improve.

I really hope the museum and library plans come to fruition. Just as fervently, I hope a larger tournament can find its way back to the club. It really is a gem, with incredible stories to tell.

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