2021 Eastern Hall of Fame: Freddie Botur
The 34th Annual Eastern Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be held Friday, August 27, 2021. Proceeds from the event—including ticket sales—benefit the Junior Tennis Foundation (JTF), which helps provide scholarships to junior and adaptive players across the Eastern Section. Learn more about the ceremony and the JTF here. Below, read our profile on 2021 inductee Freddie Botur, a Czech-born tennis pro and entrepreneur who established five facilities in New York City at the height of the American tennis boom in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like many of those who grew up and came of age in Europe in the 1930s, the course of Freddie Botur’s life was greatly influenced by the massive historical events swirling around him. Born with the name Vratislav Botur to a butcher and a violinist in 1922 in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), he survived both German and Russian occupation during and after World War II. When he was 26 years old, he fled the country to escape an oppressive Communist regime, seeking refuge in Germany and Australia before eventually arriving in New York in 1952 with “more hope than luggage,” he wrote in his memoir. In New York, he found work as a tennis pro and went on to live out a true American dream, establishing five facilities in New York City at the height of the tennis boom in the 1960s and 1970s. The longest-running of these clubs, the Long Island City-based Tennisport, served an eclectic clientele of business VIPs, USTA members and pro players and was still in operation as recently as 2009.
Botur first picked up a racquet when he was 14 on a vacation with his mother, and he liked the game enough to continue taking lessons at the local club when they returned home. However, he did not consider tennis as a career until much later, when he was living in Frankfurt, Germany as a refugee. He’d just been told that he’d have to move out of his apartment, and, unsure of where he’d find lodging—or food—next, he walked aimlessly around the bombed-out city until he stumbled into a park. As he stopped to admire a group of red clay courts that reminded him of his childhood, a man approached Botur and asked him if he knew how to play. Botur said that he did, and the man—the groundskeeper of the facility—told him that an American army captain was in desperate need of a hitting partner. Botur agreed to help. At the end of the session, the captain paid Botur, mistaking him for a teaching pro. The rest was history. In a matter of days, Botur began giving up to six lessons a day at three dollars per hour to other American officers.
“It was my mother who had insisted I take [tennis] lessons...but it was the war that turned my life upside down and landed me in a foreign country with a groundskeeper, who accidentally gave me my start in a tennis career,” Botur wrote.
After a detour in Australia, Botur arrived in America and procured a job as a pro at the River Club in New York City. The club drew a high-end membership, and soon Botur was giving lessons to a wide range of government officials, company founders and CEOs, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts.
“It seems that interesting moments occurred daily in teaching tennis, which also involved listening to people’s personal problems and sympathizing with them,” Botur wrote. “I think this was part of why I was well-liked and had [a] good and steady clientele...many of them became friends.”
Botur leaned on these friendships as he thought about pursuing facility ownership in the mid-1960s.
“I wondered why a city like New York did not have more tennis clubs,” he wrote. “In Europe or Australia, in addition to the public courts, there were countless little tennis clubs available to anyone who could afford them, without needing ten recommendation letters and a waiting list.”
To that end, he first opened Tennis Inc. at the 34th Street Armory in Manhattan in 1965. The club, which consisted of five indoor courts, counted 200 members by opening day. It was at the Armory that Botur also helped support pre-Open era players: In 1967, Tennis Inc. hosted a men’s tournament for player/promoter Jack Kramer that featured Rod Laver, Pancho Segura and Cliff Drysdale. Three years later the facility also hosted one of the first Virginia Slims Invitational Tournaments, featuring fellow 2021 Eastern Hall of Fame inductee Billie Jean King. (The Virginia Slims Circuit, of course, would eventually evolve into the WTA.)
The city demolished the Armory in 1971, which marked the end of Tennis Inc. By that time Botur had already established a separate club on the Upper West Side, called the West Park Racquet Club. Due in no small part to Botur’s reputation, West Park’s eleven outdoor courts attracted a who’s who of New York notables. The mayor of the city at the time, John Lindsay, hit with Botur each morning; others who picked up the sport at the location included Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. In fact, Redford and Botur became so friendly over the years that the actor attended the opening of another one of Botur’s clubs—the Cedarhurst Tennis Club in Queens—to help generate publicity. During this time, Botur also ran Tennis 59, an innovative indoor tennis facility under the 59th Street Bridge. At Tennis 59, Botur presented an Easter Bowl Champion trophy to a 10-year-old John McEnroe.
In 1972, Botur opened Tennisport, perhaps his most storied contribution to the NYC tennis ecosystem. By the mid-1980s, the club—which sat just across the East River from Manhattan—counted over 1200 members among its ranks. It was so successful for a time that Botur ended up buying the land on which it was built. (His other clubs had been forced to shut down mostly due to the city refusing to renew his lease, so the move was a no-brainer.)
In addition to enticing big-name customers like Ralph Lauren and Rupert Murdoch, Tennisport became a hub for professional players. McEnroe, Jim Courier, Botur’s Czech compatriot Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Arthur Ashe all spent time training at the facility. McEnroe even persuaded Botur to install the same US Open court surface at Tennisport so that the athlete could practice there in the lead-up to the Queens-based Grand Slam. But Botur’s personal touch ensured it would serve as more than just a tennis club: Over the years, the site also included an art gallery to support local artists and hosted multiple charity events—with Elton John and Mary Tyler Moore among those in attendance—to support youth tennis programming. Tennisport only shut down in 2009 as a result of a protracted eminent domain dispute with the city.
Today, Botur—who will celebrate his 100th birthday in February 2022—resides on a ranch in Wyoming with his wife, Annegret. But there’s no understating the indelible mark he left on the tennis culture in his first home in America, New York. There’s also no denying how his experiences as a refugee in the first part of his life helped strengthen his drive to succeed in subsequent years.
“I was constantly thinking about ways to improve my little income and quality of life,” Botur wrote. “I would turn out to be what they call now an entrepreneur, but back then, I was just trying to figure out a way to get ahead.”
Read more profiles of the 2021 Eastern Hall of Fame induction class:
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