Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Tribute To 126 Years of Tennis History at the West Side Tennis Club

By Michael Perlman

Dinner on the lawn facing the stately Clubhouse, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Heritage Day” is a newly launched tradition at the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) in Forest Hills, which follows the success of last year’s Forest Hills Tennis Stadium Party & Sunset Dinner that commemorated 125 years. On August 25, the Club celebrated 126 years of tennis history at an elegant and festive affair on the Tudor Clubhouse’s terrace and posh lawn. 

Past WSTC President James Frangos with Mayor David Dinkins, Photo by Michael Perlman
Highlights included speeches by influential tennis figures including a surprise visit by the first African American NYC Mayor, David Dinkins. They led the unveiling of three banners which mark the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Open Championships, and are planned to be displayed at Forest Hills Stadium. They read, “West Side Tennis Club – Home of The First U.S. Open, 1968,” “Virginia Wade, First U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion, 1968, U.S. Open Women’s Doubles Champion 1973, 1975,” and “Arthur Ashe, First U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion, 1968.” 

Unveiling of banners commemorate US Open's 50th anniversary, Photo by Michael Perlman
Live music then filled the air and guests enjoyed a multi-course dinner buffet and mingled at candlelit tables, complete with tennis balls. Topping off the night was dancing to tracks by a DJ who played everything from today’s pop tunes to Sinatra.

On April 22, 1892, thirteen initial members organized the WSTC and rented ground on Central Park West between 88th and 89th Streets, which was followed by a move to 117th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Heights (1902 – 1914) and 238th Street and Broadway (1908 – 1914), prior to acquiring its Forest Hills home from the Russell Sage Foundation at $77,000 in 1913. The Clubhouse was designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, and then ten years later, America’s first tennis stadium, Forest Hills Stadium, was designed by Kenneth Murchison, and gave birth to a number of firsts in tennis history, with the addition of its role in music history as of 1960. 

Todd Martin, Photo by Michael Perlman
Todd Martin, the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, earned a Davis Cup title over Russia in 1995, and was a U.S. Open finalist and a no.4 world ranking in 1999. At the podium, he explained, “When the sport became ‘Open,’ it developed a power, and from that came a boon in the growth of the sport. It wasn’t long after the Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Agassi… started to dominate the sport. It was those steps 50 years ago that led to momentous occasions of Virginia Wade winning the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills. It was those bold steps that led to Arthur Ashe winning the first U.S. Open. It represented progress, growth, and power, and is reflected in our society today.” He continued, “Tennis before 1968 was a child, and tennis since 1968 has been in its adolescence. We have a lot of maturing to do as a sport…We have 7 governing bodies fight with each other for property, but have yet to be able to unite.” He then stated, “Be appreciative of what you have. WSTC is a spectacular historic place, and one that will be part of tennis history forever.” 

Donald Dell, Photo by Michael Perlman
Donald Dell, a 1961 quarterfinalist in Forest Hills and the only undefeated Davis Cup captain in American history, is a forerunner in pro tennis who played a major role in founding the Association of Tennis Professionals and represented legends including Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. He explained,”When Arthur Ashe won that match in four sets, ironically it was on the American Davis Cup team assigned to the Davis Cup captain for that year to play, and he was an amateur, and could therefore not accept the prize money. The first prize that year was $14,500, but it went to Tom Okker.” He continued, “Arthur always believed that he was far, far more than a tennis player, and he cared a great deal about humanitarian problems. I took him to South Africa in 1973, and in 1974 he went back and visited Nelson Mandela who was in prison at the time. His spirit, his tenacity, and human values continue to live on.” 

Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Regarded as Great Britain’s tennis legend, Virginia Wade achieved her first Grand Slam title in 1968 at the WSTC, and accepted prize money for the first time. She won two additional Grand Slam singles titles in Australia and at Wimbledon at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. When a friend of hers a few days ago questioned her playing for no prize money before 1968, she responded, “We played because the game was amazing, you wanted to win, and you had esteem and glory if you did well, and determination and all those qualities are the same on the court today, except the game is different. 1968 was an amazing transformation from amateur to professional, and they gradually got the women’s prize money up even.” 

Mayor David Dinkins, Photo by Michael Perlman
Mayor David Dinkins, one of tennis’ closest friends and a past USTA director stated, “I am delighted to be here, and I’m happy to see so many friends. Tennis is a wonderful sport, and more and more children are playing these days, and I say it’s making better people because of it.”

Johnnie Ashe, brother of the late Arthur Ashe, Photo by Michael Perlman
Johnnie Ashe is the younger brother of Arthur Ashe, winner of the first U.S. Open Men’s Singles Championship in 1968. The Hall of Famer passed away at 49 from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. J. Ashe is often praised for his selfless decision to take a second tour of duty in Vietnam, so his brother’s tennis career can flourish. He stated, “I would like to thank all of you for keeping the history alive of this hallowed ground. You would be surprised how little today’s players know about this place, and the difference it made to tennis.” He continued, “The U.S. Open gave Arthur the opportunity to transition from athlete to ‘citizen of the world.’” He recalled his brother’s words after he finished playing; “I’m a champion now, and people will listen to me.” He continued, “Tennis was a vehicle to Arthur. A lot of people don’t think of it that way, but look at the number of kids that have gone to college due to a tennis racquet, and a lot of that was due to change agents Donald Dell and Arthur Ashe.” 

Todd Martin, WSTC President Angela Martin, Johnnie Ashe, Donald Dell, Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Virginia Wade with Johnnie Ashe & his family, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guests also felt inspired in various ways. “It’s nice that my children can witness history and see the legends in person,” said CT resident Ben Sturner, the CEO & founder of Leverage Agency. “It was very memorable how Johnnie Ashe discussed the progression of tennis, and how Forest Hills laid the groundwork for everything.”

“WSTC’s preservation of charm and character of its architectural structure is second to none,” said Manhattan resident Mindy Sue Sherry. She continued, “The heartfelt speeches from Mayor Dinkins as well as the family of Mr. Ashe touched everyone’s heart, and unveiling the banners was truly beautiful. I was also struck by the history of the many iconic photos of decades of tennis history within the hallways.”

“This event moved me to tears, since I always knew Forest Hills was special, but it is even more special to people than I realized,” said native resident Helen Fernandez Murphy. “It was amazing to be in the presence of such history, having the opportunity to listen to Johnnie Ashe’s poignant words, particularly about standing in hallowed ground, and Virginia Wade’s discussion about pay parity for women. Most intriguing was that the tournament before 1968 only involved amateurs, and how many sacrifices were made to play for the true love of the game.”

Glenn Gilliam, executive director of Strategic Partnerships for the “Althea” documentary film project, and a former Forest Hills resident, explained, “Being able to share that day, which happened to be Althea Gibson’s birthday, 8/25/1927, with other African Americans like Mayor David N. Dinkins and Arthur’s brother Johnnie Ashe was the most memorable, as we, much like Althea and Arthur, couldn’t have been members back when they won their Championships. Being able to watch that commemorative banner unveiled and share stories with some of the members, most of whom are still mostly white, is a positive sign, but there’s still a lot of work to do and barriers to break.”

Gilliam highly anticipates Heritage Day 2019. “I hope the WSTC will raise a banner to the person who broke the color barrier in tennis and golf, Althea Gibson, which will coincide perfectly with the unveiling of a commemorative statue on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center during next year’s U.S. Open.” 

Female guests pose in front of banners, Photo by Michael Perlman
To the dancefloor, Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

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