City Park tennis in the twenties: already fourteen courts.
Tennis has grown in City Park from a curious “attraction” in 1901 to a major enterprise. In 1922 the park provided the public with seventeen courts which on many Sundays had “proven not sufficient for those who wanted to play.”
Tennis has expanded and contracted over the century, but by 1954 the number of courts tripled. Like golf, tennis in City Park has expanded largely through federal funds. Also like golf, the City Park tennis facilities are the largest in the New Orleans metropolitan area.
Lawn tennis and golf both came to the United States from Great Britain in the 1870s, but lawn or outdoor tennis at the time was a brand new game. It began as an amalgam of indoor court tennis, rackets and badminton, essentially invented in 1.873 by Major Walter C. Wingfield, an English eccentric and tinkerer. By 1877 Wingfield’s new game had become so popular that a championship was held in England, and the sport had found its way to America.’
The first organized club in the United States was the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club. It began play on Christmas Day, 1876 with three courts on Philip Street near Prytania. The club incorporated in 1890 and for over fifty years maintained grass courts in addition to clay. In spite of the early emphasis on tennis in New Orleans most of the national champions of the late nineteenth century played at Harvard University, and the national championship continued to be held at Newport until 1925. Dwight F. Davis of St. Louis, a senior at Harvard and winner of the U.S. Doubles Championship, donated the “Davis Cup” in 1900. The only area of the country besides the East to win attention in tennis was California, which produced Mary Sutton, winner of Wimbledon and the first American of either sex to win an English championship. New York’s West Side Tennis Club, organized in 1892, moved to Forest Hills, Long Island, and began hosting the U.S. Lawn Tennis Championship.
Not till the second decade of the twentieth century did tennis begin to move out of the domain of private clubs. Courts were available at City Park as early as the first golf course, but the first tennis surge did not come until the early twenties. Though the national clay court championship was organized in 1910, it was not until 1923 that public park championships commenced. By then City Park had seventeen courts.
The game’s popularity during the twenties emanated from factors that repeated themselves in the 1970s- prosperity, the advent of a superstar, and a new appreciation for the value of exercise. Prosperity was evident in tennis revenues for the park, nonexistent before 1920; but rising to S1,414 in 1924, and more than doubling two years later. In 1924, the park created a newset of fifteen clay courts at a cost of $6,000, including a fence. The superstar was William (Bill) T. Tilden II, Wimbledon champion in 1920 and the undisputed world champion throughout the decade.
During the twenties, America’s widely publicized tennis world mastery brought droves to the courts. The first recorded tennis tournament at City Park took place in June of 1926 on five courts. In 1926, C. C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle organized the top tennis players of the nation into the first professional tournaments, an occurrence that brought additional publicity to the game.
The park took an important step to bolster tennis in the late twenties by encouraging the formation of the first club in 1928. Board member George Grundmann, although not a tennis player himself, foresaw the sport’s bright future. William L. Macassin and Frank Stewart had organized a club at Audubon Park in 1926, but it broke up in 1928 because of poor court upkeep. The players approached Frank Foster, who played at City Park, and decided to organize there. Park superintendent Joseph Bernard may have influenced them to move to City Park by reporting that the five new lawn tennis courts have been “but little patronized.” Organizational meetings were held at Grundmann’s home on City Park Avenue and then at the British Service Club at Canal and Decatur. Thirteen tennis enthusiasts organized the City Park Tennis Club on March 9, 1928, and elected as officers tennis pro William Macassin, Frank R. Wood, L. Claude Veglia and Charles C. McCutcheon. A charter membership of twenty-four increased by 1931 to sixty who held annual meetings at the Paul Morphy Chess, Checkers and Whist Club in downtown New Orleans. Although Grundmann convinced the Park Board to lease the club three courts, the rapid increase in club member-ship generated pressure for more playing space. The fifteen courts built in 1924 were no longer sufficient. Louis Lange, club champion during much of the 1930s approached Grundmann with fellow player Frank Foster to offer an annual thousand dollar guarantee for the rental of six courts plus rental from three additional courts if the Board would build nine more courts. Through Grundmann’s efforts the Board agreed to the offer, and the nine courts were built at a cost of 89,000, six being assigned to the tennis club. Charges of favoritism immediately flew, but the Board held firm to its agreement. The expansion made it possible for the Tennis Club to bring the first national tournament to New Orleans, the Public Parks Championship of 1931.
In 1931 two lady tennis players, Miss d’Aquin and Miss Ko1], organized the Orleans Tennis Club as a companion club to the City Park Tennis Club, which remained all male. The clubs cooperated thereafter, the men’s club subleasing courts to the women each year. Both clubs contributed to court maintenance during the financial pinch of the Depression. In July, 1933 the clubs donated 1,125 pounds of calcium chloride for the maintenance of the courts. At this time the park staff themselves made the nets for the courts and were proud of the quality. They estimated the cost at $8.50 per net.
In 1936 the WPA turned its attention to the tennis facilities in the park. The first contribution was nine concrete courts, completed in early 1937 that survived into the 1980s. In 1937 the city made available bricks from the old Charity Hospital that were used to resurface the clay courts with brick dust. Clay had a serious disadvantage in the rainy New Orleans climate, since it took two to four days to drain. Brick dust drained much faster and was relatively durable. New Orleans Public Service Inc. donated a brick crusher for the park’s use. The park began the resurfacing program with three clay courts, redistributed the clay to six other clay courts, and used 300 loads of crushed bricks on the three courts. The WPA agreed to provide the drainage system for the nine courts, and completed itswork in 1938. The same year WPA agreed to build a new tennis house, completed in September, 1938. In 1939 WPA began converting the fifteen original clay courts to brick dust and completed the process by 1942. The WPA also provided a new lighting system for the night play. The rebuilt and new courts brought the total number of courts in the park to thirty-three. In 1942 City Park had six clay courts, nine concrete and eighteen brick dust. Revenue from tennis increased in the late thirties, but peaked just before the World War II, and then plummeted, remaining low during the war years.
The end of the war witnessed a sudden jump in tennis playing, but there was a gradual erosion of interest in tennis between 1946 and the early 1950s, In 1946 the Board contracted with Rubien Construction Company of Westfield, New Jersey to resurface six courts with Rubico, a natural stone from Virginia with excellent compaction and drainage qualities. In 1950 the Tennis Committee, led by Dr. Fred Ketchum, called in Fred Rubien because the courts had not held up. After extensive negotiations the committee recommended continuing with Rubico, and the company agreed to rebuild the six courts free of charge to the park while the Board purchased additional Rubico for five courts at a cost of $6,000. Over the next eight years the Board converted its remaining brick dust courts to Rubico, ending up with twenty-four Ruble courts.
By the beginning of the decade of the sixties, tennis revenue had increased to $10,717, up from $7,954 at the beginning of the fifties. Management counted sixty tournaments on the courts in 1960. By 1970 that number had climbed to 160 tournaments. The sixties saw a careful maintenance program restore the Rubico courts each year with dramatically increasing revenue, more than doubling by 1967 to $23,149.
A steadily increasing interest in tennis convinced the city to include expansion of the courts in its capital program bond issue. From that the park received $77,894 to build its first five laykold (a comparatively soft asphalt surface) courts and additional parking. The new courts were dedicated on June 29, 1967. Laykold has generallybeen considered a fine compromise between the durability of the concrete and the comfort of the Rubico. The steadily increasing patronage and the city’s support for tennis prompted the Board to approach a major park benefactor-the Wisner Foundation-for monies to construct a new tennis center. Designed by George Kiehl and completed in 1969, the new tennis center contained lockers for men and women, and a pro shop operated by Al Pendergrass for the first eight years. At the end of the seventies the park switched its tennis ticket issuing office from the Casino to the Wisner Center.
The decade of the seventies brought a new tennis- playing mayor to office, Moon Landrieu. As a member of the City Park Tennis Club and a regular player on the courts, Landrieu participated in another dramatic leap in patronage. In 1972 park manager Ellis Laborde showed Mayor Landrieu a survey by the National Parks and Recreation Association predicting that tennis playing would increase nationally for the rest of the decade and peak before 1980. This estimate proved correct. By 1970 tennis revenue had tripled 1967 figures, reaching $63,011. The mayor approved the expenditure of the first federal funds spent on tennis in the park since the thirties, providing for construction in 1974 of six additional laykold courts. City Park’s forty-four courts served ninety thousand hours of tennis that year. The Tennis Club continued to rent nine courts, seven for men and two for women, and in the middle of the decade its rent reached $30,000 for a two-year lease. A pro shop lease to Sport Rite, Inc. brought an additional yearly rent of $20,000.
Tennis continued to grow. In 1977 Mayor Landrieu helped the park secure a second federal grant to build ten more laykold courts adjoining the former swimming pool. Other public funds provided for improved lighting, which enabled expert class play at night. By the end of the decade tennis revenues had more than doubled again, reaching $130,000. The expansion of the number of courts is shown in the table below:
Two institutions had a major impact on tennis in the park during the post-World War II era. The first was the Catholic Youth Organization’s free tennis clinic each summer, begun in 1946. Mrs. Rita Krupp approached park superintendent Marcel Montreuil with the idea of tennis as a summer activity for boys and girls. Montreuil agreed to provide the courts if Mrs. Krupp, assisted by Miss Rosemary Milazzo and others, did the teaching. Rita Krupp secured the support of the New Orleans Item and then the CYO, long directed by Ray Mock, which provided the tennis balls and trophies. All of the supervision was voluntary; but after ten years, Mrs. Krupp had the opportunity to turn professional and handed the reins over to her able assistants Bill Judice, Mrs. Vernon Weiss and Larry Chopin. Classes held there three days a week benefited hundreds of children who routinely came out over the years. The park benefited, concessionaires benefited, and the game received a strong impetus. By 1970 over 12,000 children had learned tennis in the clinics. A second institution to promote tennis in the park was the Midwinter Sports Association which inaugurated its annual Sugar Bowl Tennis Tournament in 1948. Elaine Kern and Ann Martindale launched the event, which over the years grew to a major southern tournament, then a national and finally an international tournament. Thomas Whaley of the New Orleans Country Club and Betty and Charles Turner directed the tournament during the 1970s and 1980s. It became one of the largest national tournaments held at one location. From 150 players, it grew to include over 500 players from every state, most of Latin America, and other countries such as Australia, England, New Zealand and India) In 1997 the tournament redefined itself and moved to the indoor courts at the New Orleans Hilton.
The most famous player to come from the City Park courts was Linda Tuero. A resident of Metairie, she attended St. Martin’s Protestant Episcopal School and Newcomb College, and as early as the age of fifteen was a runner-up for the National Women’s Title. At the age of nineteen she defeated the number one ranking women’s player, Nancy Richey, and went on to win the U.S. Open Clay Court Championships. In October, 1970 Percy H. Sitges, chairman of the tennis committee forthe Board, organized a Linda Tuero Day at the park, an event that drew several thousand spectators to a program and demonstration match.
As the millennium commences City Park tennis is about to get a new look. Plans are in place to replace the current parking lot and the 14 clay courts, with a new open parking lot and a new one story covered parking lot, on which twelve new laykold courts will be installed. Because of the substantial three-foot drop in grade from Dreyfous Avenue to Victory Drive, most of the new parking garage will be subsurface. It will remain invisible to viewers along the lagoons, and show just a small facade to those entering Storyland.
Nationally and locally tennis has declined in the 1990s. The decade began auspiciously enough when Tennis Magazine selected New Orleans City Park tennis one of the 25 greatest U.S. Municipal tennis facilities. Of all the facilities in the United States, City Park had the second highest number of courts. But declining revenue has forced a change in focus. In cooperation with the United States Tennis Association City Park has launched clinics for first-time learners. It operates an Adopt-a-school program that brings students in on Saturdays. Their program won the Louisiana Tennis Association Education Merit Award for 1998. Group sales remain the backbone of tennis. These are the leagues and clubs that rent the courts. The Ladies League plays on the Mondays and Tuesdays; the Men’s League plays on Mondays and Wednesdays. Occasional large tournaments are an advantage. The Oil Men’s Tournament leased all the courts one weekend a year.
In the one hundred years tennis has been played at City Park, tennis has broadened its appeal from a sport of the elite to a game of the many. More than 350,000 persons played at City Park in 1975, by and large people who would not have been able to play the game were it not for public courts in public parks.