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In the shadow of professional sports, tennis thrives in south Philly

March 26, 2009 10:43 AM
Maurice Braswell and Dom Christopher celebrate during their match.
Dom Christopher, a retired police chief from New Jersey, in action.
By Ron Cioffi, USTA Southern

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF. – When the men from Middle States play, the thunderous roar of the crowd is so deafening they have actually stopped play.

But it is not the strokes of the team from FDR Park in south Philadelphia that ignites the fans but the home runs of the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in the adjoining Citizens Bank Park. Also contributing are the loud reactions to touchdowns at Lincoln Financial Field where the Philadelphia Eagles play.

Things are much quieter for the team this weekend as they compete in the 2008 USTA League presented by Chrysler 3.5 Senior National Championships in Indian Wells, Calif.

Known as The Lakes, the public park is home to residents from the south Philly neighborhood, where half the team members live. Co-captains Ken Palumbo and Tom Shelly live minutes away from the courts.

In between the park and these two outdoor stadiums is the Wachovia Center, home of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Flyers. The hockey team is nicknamed the “Broad Street Bullies” for the street that runs between The Lakes and the massive sports complex.

“Yeah, we’ve stopped (play) in the middle of points. Sometimes someone will turn on the radio to see who has scored for the Eagles,” said Palumbo. “You can hear the crowds. That’s what makes living here so exciting.”

Shelly said game day means the park’s parking lot is flooded with tailgaters.

“We don’t mind, as long as they stay off the tennis courts. Sometimes it’s easy to get in but real hard to get out,” he said.

There is a large soft spot in the hearts of these city dwellers for those courts. For years they played on courts that were just below I-95, the main highway that runs down the East Coast.

“There were the cars and the fumes. There were the freight trains. You couldn’t hear anything. We used to use hand signals for the score,” Shelly explained as he showed them off on his hand, 1-2-3 for 15-30-40 and then a fist for deuce.

“Players would come from other parks and complain that they couldn’t hear anything,” he added. “We used to laugh because we were used to it. Once we went to another park and one of my players said, ‘I don’t like it here. All I hear is birds. It’s distracting.’ ”

“All the courts had cracks on the center line. We used to say, ‘Serve the cracks,’ and try to hit them and get weird bounces,” Palumbo said.

Palumbo and Shelly led a fight with the city and the parks commission to get the courts fixed. After the co-captains attended City Hall meetings and did other campaigning to push for court reconstruction over six years, the officials agreed to an even better plan: to build the new courts in the northeast corner of the park right near the ballparks, nearly a half-mile from the highway.



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