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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 12:01 am

Courting new fans

The Velasco Tennis Center opens in Washington Park

PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

 

Is it entirely a coincidence that the Washington Park tennis courts, where the Springfield Park District offers lessons for young players, now are painted like a child’s bedroom? The courts were reopened in September after having been resurfaced, re-netted and painted blue and green, in the new approved U.S. Tennis Association style.

The colors make the ball easier to see, sayeth the USTA, but what the tennis moguls ought to do is make the ball easier to hit. As anyone knows who’s tried it, tennis is one of those games that must be played fairly well in order to be played at all. Pat Quinn might enjoy fetching 10 balls out of the net for every one he hits over it, but most people find it funless, and ultimately deflating.

I grew up watching Emerson and Laver and Ashe, men who would make any boy wish to be a tennis player. It took me years of banging the ball around a bit to realize that for me to be a tennis player I would first have to be an Emerson or Laver or Ashe. What I taught myself confirmed the importance of not trying to teach oneself.

I played at the Washington Park courts in the latter 1960s and into the ’70s. The north courts were then as now where local tournaments are staged. They are equipped with lights and a proper umpire’s chair, and there the better players congregated, as much at home as if they owned the place.

The caged courts made the scene reminiscent of the zoo, and I often stopped to watch the exotic creatures cavort within. They wore white clothes, white shoes (tennis shoes, mind, not basketball or deck shoes) and they played with white balls – baskets of white balls. Nothing struck me as so extravagant until I first learned about firemen’s pensions.

I can still hear as well as see them – the banter, the quick “zip” of a kit bag or racket cover being opened, the hiss and pop of a fresh can of balls being opened, the satisfying “thwock” of a well-struck ball falling on my ears as steadily as raindrops on a roof. To paraphrase Bobby Jones’s admiring remark about the young Jack Nicklaus, they played a game with which I was not familiar.

They were superior beings in the social sense, clearly. The game in its nascent form was originally taken up by French royals, and in the 1890s the modern version was embraced by the sons and daughters of our professional and business elites. In my naivete I did not appreciate that such skills were not innate, that such people are not born able to play tennis any more than I was born to, say, cut my spaghetti with a fork. Those players were endowed with those marvelous strokes only because of long apprenticeships consisting of lessons at the club or expensive summer camps. These days, for example, the aspiring pro must have parents able to afford to board them at tennis academies in Florida that resemble the medals factories that the East German athletic ministry used to run. Thus does the aristocracy of wealth spawn the aristocracy of sport.

The Washington Park courts increasingly cater to the advanced player. The facility has been named the Velasco Tennis Center in part to honor Manny Velasco, the venerable coach and instructor who is Bolivia’s gift to Springfield and who in his youth won six Bolivian National Junior Tennis Champion titles and was ranked No. 1 in Bolivia. The courts are home to the Springfield High School varsity team and the practice venue for the University of Illinois Springfield tennis teams. And as noted, it is the venue for SPD tennis classes. That hardly makes it a Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, but even taking lessons from the SPD requires money for fees, transport in the form of a willing parent with time and a vehicle, a shelf full of instructional videos at home and of course equipment.  

The advanced player, and those who wish to be, are the only market the Velasco Center has. In 1978 – after Connors and McEnroe made tennis safe for the greedy, the ill-mannered and the vulgar – some 25 million or 11 percent of Americans are thought to have played the game at least occasionally. Were that proportion of the population playing today, they would number 35 million; surveys suggest the actual number is 25 million or so. Only two of every 25 people old enough to complain about a line call ever take up a tennis racket with intent. Blue and green courts are unlikely to increase that number by making it easier to see the ball if the ball that Americans are watching is a baseball or a football.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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