(On the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, the former venue of the US Open – and what’s happening there today).
On a recent Saturday, the rhythmic thwacks of tennis balls resounded once again across the grass courts at the West Side Tennis Club, against the backdrop of the occasional Long Island Railroad trains’ rustling.
Some 35 years after the U.S. Open ended its six-decade run at the fabled Forest Hills tennis haven, players stepped on the courts for the first edition of the Evian Wood Racquet Cup on Aug. 18. The event, which came just over a week before the start of the U.S. Open a few subway stops away in Flushing, marked part of an effort to revive tennis at the historic venue – offering everything from new tournaments to lessons for children.
“This event is a great way to remember the past in a relaxed and fun way,” said Jason Zone Fisher, who was master of ceremonies for the Evian Wood Racquet Cup. Facebook comments from before the event ranged from, “I’ll be there with my Jack Kramer autograph”, “I’ll wear my Velcro headband” to “The way tennis SHOULD be played.”
(Photo credit: JoeShlabotnik on Flickr)
The West Side Tennis Club’s clubhouse has low sloping roofs and gables, much like the tastefully built Tudor-style houses of the surrounding neighborhood of Forest Hills in Queens. Yet, its sparsely crowded grounds and unoccupied main stadium reflect a huge waning of power from its heyday when it was a center of American tennis.
Bob Ingersole, the Tennis Director of the West Side Tennis Club says, “The USTA wanted to grow the US Open and do much more with it – but the West Side Tennis Club just wasn’t big enough.” The West Side Tennis Club had no way to expand. The USTA was forced to move the Open to Flushing in 1978, one year after Guillermo Vilas and Chris Evert won the last US Open to be held at the West Side Tennis Club.
After the US Open moved out, the club started to host the Tournament of Champions, which kept the club’s prominence from waning. More importantly, the high profile tournament preserved much of the flow of cash into the club’s bank accounts.
The West Side Tennis Club is privately owned – and its members own shares of the club. Thus, when the sponsors Shearson Lehman Brothers withdrew and the Tournament Of Champions stopped in 1990, a huge revenue stream dried up, and there was nothing on the horizon to fill the void.
To resuscitate its finances, the club started to host Challenger tournaments and WTA events. These were nowhere as high profile as the US Open and Tournament Of Champions. But these brought in much needed money to replenish the club’s dwindling bank accounts.
In recent years, membership outreach has been the club’s chief growth strategy. The club has hosted junior tournaments and events like Evian Wood Racquet Cup – which have led to growth in membership and brought in money. The club held the Nesquik “Little Mo” International Open for kids in August – which featured appearances by Max Mirnyi and the Bryan Brothers. Ingersole says the club’s finances have “gone from poor to improving to stable” and adds ,“we are now in black”.
The West Side Tennis Club’s conundrums have been chiefly financial. While the loss of the US Open was a big blow to the club, the resulting shortage of money was the most unkindest cut.
In May 2011, the Landmark Preservation Council evaluated the club to assess the possibility of its classification as a New York City landmark, but rejected the proposal “due to the deteriorated state of the building’s architectural features.”
As the club’s financial pressures persisted, its ownership of prime property in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets presented opportunities. In August 2010, the developer Cord Meyer entered into a tentative deal of $10 million to develop a condo on the club’s grounds.
The proposed eradication of a long-standing part of tennis tradition provoked angry reactions throughout the tennis world. Well known commentator Bud Collins said in a 2010 interview with WYNC ,“So much history is lodged in those walls. Althea Gibson playing and breaking the color barrier in 1950, ‘Big’ Bill Tilden and Billie Jean King, you just go down the list of champions.”
The deal to develop condos on the club’s land fell through when it was rejected by the club’s members in October. Right now, Ingersole says he cannot comment on plans to sell the club.
Today, the West Side Tennis Club still feels right out of a past age. Colorful parasols, white chairs, fading photographs and polished name boards stand beside meticulously trimmed grass courts. A wind vane in the shape of a silhouette of tennis players across a net sways between the roof slopes.
Last Saturday’s Evian Wood Racquet Cup was a commemoration of the club’s link with the past. Most of the attendees were dressed in all-white tennis gear. Many sported head-bands. Some sported outsized, colorful glasses. Some posed for photographs with their wooden racquets and retro looks. The main event was a doubles tournament with wooden racquets, but the music, food, drinks and informal games lent the afternoon an informal, picnic-like atmosphere.
29 year old Bitsy Metcalf had grown up playing tennis in New Orleans, and was looking to start playing regularly again. Metcalf thought a wood racquet retro-themed event was a very cool idea. She said, “I really, really loved the club. It was a beautiful place. I’d love to come back.”
As this year’s US Open draws to an end, the crowds and demand for tickets at Flushing Meadows will slowly intensify over the course of the next couple of days. The West Side Tennis Club may never attract that kind of crowds ever again. But then, neither will the US Open at Flushing Meadows ever attain the slow, easy pace of its own past that lives on at the West Side Tennis Club.
(Photo credit: Bondidwhat on Flickr).