Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Greener Horizons at Iconic West Side Tennis Club

By Michael Perlman

Tennis Captain Ed Flamos, tennis legend Virginia Wade, & WSTC President Monika Jain - Ribbon cutting, Photo by Michael Perlman

It was history-in-the-making for the West Side Tennis Club on May 28. The sun seemed to shine even brighter, as West Side Tennis Club members and guests were first to play in traditional white attire on the newly resurfaced field of eight state-of-the-art grass courts between a stately Tudor clubhouse (1913) and Forest Hills Stadium, America’s first tennis stadium (1923). This was followed by a patio luncheon overlooking a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring British number-one Virginia Wade, the first U.S. Open champion in 1968, who is now a NYC resident. It also felt like a rebirth, since events were off limits due to the pandemic.
Playing the new grass courts, Photo by Michael Perlman

“I am excited to be part of this amazing event, and I’ve felt so welcomed by every member,” said Jason Weir-Smith, the new director of racquet sports who led the ceremony.

“To have been able to take on successfully a transformational upgrade of our grass courts at this moment in time,” said WSTC President Monika Jain, “is a testament to our Board of Governors, our playing members, and our commitment to our mission.” The Grass Court Committee was chaired by Chip Smith and Sarah Mannion. She credited a team effort in the works for over two years. “We want to offer the best racquet sports experience in New York.”

Tennis legend Virginia Wade, Club CEO Mario DiPreta, Dir of Racquet Sports Jason Weir-Smith, President Monika Jain, Photo by Michael Perlman

Virginia Wade was a guest of honor. “I had a real Déjà Vu watching all these good players out today. I know what good grass is like, and grass technology is so sophisticated these days, and the way that they can produce turf for all sports. It’s so exciting that this club chose to have advice from Wimbledon.” She told attendees, “All you good people, keep hitting the ball in the middle. Make sure that you’re very strict about the courts by the shoes that you wear, since we don’t want to damage these precious courts. One day I will manage to come out here and test it for myself.”

She also explained, “The WSTC lawns will become the envy of every tradition-loving club and player, and for those lucky enough to play on them, it will be a blissful experience.”

A ribbon was held across the net by President Monika Jain and Tennis Captain Ed Flamos, where Wade cut it with what Weir-Smith humorously portrayed as “a small pair of scissors.” That led to a champagne toast.

Celebrating the occasion, Photo by Michael Perlman

After the WSTC relocated from the Bronx to Forest Hills in 1913, grass was laid for seven courts, and by the following August, a Davis Cup match would attract an audience of over 12,000, transforming tennis. The hallowed WSTC grounds were where legends including Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Ken Rosewall, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Chris Evert made their mark.

Tennis greats Virginia Wade & Rennae Stubbs, Photo by Michael Perlman

In more recent times, the courts were considered past their prime with spongy and bent grass, and its overhaul would follow a decade of success stories with the revitalization of Forest Hills Stadium, two new European-style red clay courts, the renovation of one hard court for pickle ball, the upgrading of three platform tennis courts, and significant membership growth.

After Newport’s International Hall of Fame resurrected its turf venue, it inspired the WSTC leadership to examine its feasibility, which would cost $650,000 and deliver improved playability and consistency. The project was designed by Tom Irwin Advisors, a Massachusetts-based firm under Ian Lacy, the former head of Great Britain’s Institute of Groundsmanship Professional Services. Test pits were dug to evaluate layers of soil, and Lacy and his colleagues recommended a plan to replace the grass, upgrade the irrigation system, enhance the underlying dirt by adding a sand mixture for playability and durability, and regrade the courts. The scientific grass is a modern blend of three varieties of rye, and is now consistent with Wimbledon, the Newport Hall of Fame, and London’s Queens Club. Part of the upgrades were attractive Wimbledon-style wooden tennis posts with brass winder mechanisms and “West Side Tennis Club” etchings, and tennis net center straps.

The West Side Tennis Club etchings on new traditional wooden posts, Photo by Michael Perlman

Rennae Stubbs, 2nd from left, Photo by Michael Perlman

“My favorite surface in the whole world is grass,” said Rennae Stubbs, a legendary Australian tennis player, coach, and Racquet Magazine podcast host who was among the special guests. “It was the first time I ever played here, and it was great to be part of opening the courts for the first time this year. You just have to look around to know you’re in a historic tennis club. It’s nice to have Virginia Wade, such a great champion, to cut the ribbon and enjoy the day with.”

Enjoying the occasion, Photo by Michael Perlman

WSTC members in traditional white, Photo by Michael Perlman

Christian Kilrain Carter Coleman said, “It’s not only a WSTC historical moment, but one in my life, since it is the first time I played on grass. This is my new standard and where it all begins for me.” He continued, “It’s amazing to see Virginia Wade, one of my tennis idols. I remember when she won in 1977 at Wimbledon, when I was just a kid, getting into tennis. It’s also amazing to see Rennae Stubbs, a four-time Grand Slam champion (women’s doubles), and people from Racquet Magazine. Everyone here adds to the equation, and brings together a beautiful tennis community.”

Longtime WSTC member Dr. Juan Reyes said, “The new grass courts are much better, since the ball bounces higher and we can rally and really enjoy it. Before the ball would hardly bounce.” He called it a step in the right direction and a reason for delivering value to the membership. “It is nice to see the old-timers and the younger generations remembering them,” he continued.

WSTC executives alongside tennis legend Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman

“This is one of the most revered sites, as the first home of the U.S. Open, along with a great history of players such as Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade, who really put women’s tennis on the map,” said Frank Milillo, a pickleball ambassador. “The courts have always been top notch, and it’s exciting to see how well the Club improved it with a new lawn. This is where the sport grew, and now it’s coming back to its roots.”

Rennae Stubbs testing the new grass courts, Photo by Michael Perlman