In their own words: Alan Schwartz on tennis in the public parks
July is National Park and Recreation Month, and we’ve just completed the National Public Parks Tennis Championships (NPPTC), which took place in Bucks County, Pa., and was hosted by the Bucks County Tennis Association. It was the first time since 1926 that the event returned to the Philadelphia area. (For more on the NPPTC, visit its website.)
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the NPPTC, which was started in 1923 in St. Louis by tennis legend Dwight Davis (founder of the Davis Cup international team competition), who was the city’s parks commissioner. The 2023 tournament will return to its birthplace, St. Louis.
In honor of National Park and Recreation Month and the NPPTC, we’ve asked volunteer leaders who have been instrumental with public parks tennis and with the tournament over the years to share their thoughts on the importance tennis in the public parks has played throughout the history of this sport in the United States. To close out the series, we hear from former USTA president Alan Schwartz.
“To promote and develop the growth of tennis.”
In 1995 as a first-year USTA board member, I crafted that simple mission statement—the first time the USTA had a singular, well-defined theme. Those eight words capture what all of us—volunteers and staff—strive to achieve for this great game.
And nothing fits better into this mission than all that is happening on tennis courts in public parks throughout this country. As we celebrate July as National Park and Recreation Month, and with the National Public Parks Tennis Championships recently taking place in Bucks County, Pa., the focus on tennis in the public parks has never been more important.
In Chicago, there’s a wonderful public facility called the Waveland Tennis Courts, and growing up, I was a ballboy there for Don Budge and Bobby Riggs. When the first Mayor Daley was in office [Richard J. Daley], he saw the importance of tennis in the parks to Chicago residents, and he appointed me and two others to survey all 713 of the city’s public tennis courts and asked us for suggestions. We recommended the city create three or four “meccas” of tennis with 10 or more courts, then have satellite locations off of those. Some years later, that’s exactly what they did, and it worked well.
Later, the second Mayor Daley [Richard M. Daley] called and asked me what I would recommend to help tennis in Chicago’s parks, and I suggested that our company, Tennis Corporation of America, run the public court tennis centers—at no cost. And that’s what we did, to help grow the game. We felt what was missing was an onsite pro or parks superintendent who really cared about the sport, so we recruited them to provide tennis programming in the parks.
Today, here in Chicago, we have some very wonderful public tennis facilities, as we do in parks throughout the country. And I’ve had the pleasure of playing at some very excellent facilities over the years in the National Public Parks Tennis Championships.
I probably played in at least 15 NPPTC events, and I was fortunate to win the singles title in my division at least three times, and the doubles title at least four times. I remember playing in the open doubles final in Buffalo, N.Y., back when the winner qualified to play in Forest Hills, and we lost 11-9 in the fifth set, after having a number of match points in our favor.
Throughout my years playing the NPPTC, I was thrilled to meet, play with and socialize with players from all across the country, in all walks of life. That’s one of the highlights of playing on public park courts—the diversity of the people that you meet. It’s a microcosm of the country itself, and it’s where you can understand where the growth in this sport will come from. For me, as I increased my role over the years in helping to grow this sport, it helped me to better understand the importance of tennis at the grassroots.
It also led to many, many great experiences over the years.
I remember one time when the NPPTC was in Chicago and tennis champion George Lott played the 65-doubles event. Lott was a doubles champion, having won the U.S. Championships doubles title five times, Wimbledon doubles twice and the French Championships once. In the NPPTC, his partner was someone we called “Salami Sam,” who played at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, where George taught tennis. Sam was, at best, an average non-tournament player. George always said the return of serve in doubles was a shot that rarely garnered sufficient attention and he was determined to teach Sam an effective return. “I’ll teach you one thing: Return serve with a lob,” George told him.
So that’s what Sam did—throughout the tournament—and they won the 65-and-over NPPTC doubles title, in front of a huge crowd.
Another time, when I was playing the NPPTC in Colorado with my mixed doubles partner, Pat Freebody, the former general manager at Midtown Tennis Club in Chicago, we played against a guy who was a lineman for the Cleveland Browns—and he was not giving us any close line calls.
Finally, in frustration, I said, “That shot was clearly in!” He started toward the net and yelled, “Are you calling me a cheater?”
“Well, I guess I am,” I replied, girding for a confrontation.
Then Pat, who was probably half my size, jumped in between us, pushed me away, and said to me, “Are you crazy?” She probably saved me from getting seriously hurt. (And worse, we might have had to default the match!)
While I certainly don’t want players to argue on court, you can see the passions on all sides that this sport arouses. And that’s what tennis in the public parks is all about: creating and sustaining passionate players.
We know that the vast majority of tennis in the U.S., at least 70%, takes place on public courts, and I’m betting that will probably increase in the future. I think we can certainly do more to support the National Public Parks Tennis Championships and similar events—and to support tennis in the parks overall. That would be money well spent to meet the mission of the USTA.
[Editor’s note: Alan Schwartz served as a USTA Board member for 12 years, and served as USTA President and Chairman of the Board from 2003 to 2004. He founded Midtown Tennis Club in 1969 and Tennis Corporation of America (TCA). Under his leadership, TCA Holdings now owns and operates tennis, health and fitness facilities and corporate fitness centers throughout North America. Alan is a past president of the National Indoor Tennis Association and has served on boards for the Tennis Industry Association, The Tennis Channel, International Tennis Federation, Duke University Fuqua Graduate School of Business, Roosevelt University, International Institute for Education of Students, and more. He also co-developed the National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP). As a player, Alan held national rankings as both a junior and senior player, captained his team at Yale, won seven state titles, eight national titles and two gold and one silver in the Maccabiah Games.]
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