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TENNIS

TENNIS. Tennis clubs were organized in Cleveland during the 1880s, and the first identifiable location for the sport was on the Billings' front lawn on the south side of Euclid Ave. and what is now E. 88th St. Hosting the games were Charles and Frank Billing, joined by Henry Wick, Harry Judd, Orlando Hall, and Sterling Beckwith. Shortly thereafter, this group moved over to GEORGE WORTHINGTON's front lawn. Organized tennis began with the formation of the East End and Buckeye clubs in the Euclid-Willson Ave. (E. 55th St.) area. Cleveland's first tennis tournament was launched in 1880 at the East End Tennis Club under the direction of George Worthington, assisted by Charles B. Post and T. Sterling Beckwith. The East End Club continued to flourish, adding new courts on Carnegie west of E. 77th St., where the Ohio State Tennis Open was held prior to 1914, along with the Intercity tournaments. Local women were slower to take up the game, hampered by the long skirts that were fashionable in the 1890s. Elizabeth Dean Sprague won the Women's City Championship 3 straight years (1899-1901). Mary K. Brown was the national U.S. women's tennis champion from 1912-14, and captured the women's doubles championship in 1921 and 1925 with Helen Wills as a partner. In 1916 the National Clay Courts tournament was held at the Lakewood Tennis Club, where nearly 2,000 tennis fans watched Willis Johnson defeat Conrad Doyle in the singles and Molla Bjernstedt and George M. Church win the mixed doubles. Over 90% of Cleveland tennis players in the World War I era belonged to outdoor racquet clubs, which included the Edgewater, Nela Park, East End, General Electric, Lakewood, Univ., and Cleveland Yacht clubs. The Cleveland Tennis & Racquet Club, an outgrowth of the East End Tennis & Racquet Club, was established at Kemper and Fairhill Rds. in 1923; it was taken over by the CLEVELAND SKATING CLUB in 1937. Public tennis courts became important as outlets for the game during the 1920 and 1930s. All courts, public and private had a "blue" clay surface; the only two grass courts in the area were at the MAYFIELD COUNTRY CLUB.

Tennis conditions changed considerably following World War II, with the introduction of all-weather courts, new rules such as the "tie break," and improved equipment, such as larger racquets and yellow tennis balls. Most of the public and semiprivate outdoor clubs disappeared as the residential and commercial areas of the city expanded. In their place "indoor suburban" clubs appeared, and additional tennis activity occurred on local golf club courts. Interclub "A" league play flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, but most of the country clubs joined in establishing a "B" league that permitted many additional tennis players to compete. During the postwar period television popularized the sport by broadcasting the international tournaments, such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, making Australians Ken Rosewall and John Newcomb, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova stars. In the early 1970s the number of tennis players in the U.S. quadrupled.

From the 1920s to the 1990s Cleveland tennis tournaments varied greatly from junior, public-park, and amateur to professional. The city tourneys, known as "the munis," were sponsored by the CLEVELAND PRESS, and during World War II the city championships moved from GRAYS ARMORY to the Cleveland Skating Club (CSC). The PLAIN DEALER sponsored the junior tournaments, which produced a number of fine players. John March, owner of the Shaker Racquet Club, originated a series of professional tournaments, starting at the CSC in 1950 where Pancho Segura won the singles title by defeating Frank Kovacs. March repeated the successful pro contest in 1953 and 1954 at the Lakewood High School courts.

In 1960 Cleveland achieved national status when Robert Malaga brought the DAVIS CUP competition to the city and organized "The Green Coats" to handle all the details of the events. The championship matches, held in Sept. 1964, brought top tennis representatives of the U.S. and Australia together for the final, where American Dennis Ralston lost in 5 sets to Australian Fred Stolle. The success of the Davis Cup matches assured the continuity of significant tournaments in Cleveland as city leadership, the Greater Cleveland Tennis Assn., and the business community of Cleveland cooperated in a joint effort to carry on the tradition formulated at the Cleveland Skating Club from 1960-63, and thereafter at the HAROLD T. CLARK TENNIS COURTS. As of 1986, Cleveland had sponsored 10 Davis Cup, 6 Wightman Cup, 3 Bonne Bell, and 20 other national open and amateur championships, producing fine players such as Clark Graebner, who ranked among the top 10 nationally for 8 years, winning 3 U.S. Men's national singles titles in the 1960s. Other local players of note were John Dorr and Monte Ganger, who won the U.S. doubles championship, Edward DeLeone, Kirk Reid, and Robert Malaga, who later became executive director of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn. Notable local women players were Edna Shalala and Gwyneth Thomas, who ranked among the top 15 women in U.S. amateur tennis from 1957-63. In 1974 Joe Zingale brought team tennis to Cleveland when he bought the CLEVELAND NETS franchise for $50,000 from the shortlived (1973-78) World Team Tennis league. The league fielded 16 teams to play a schedule of 44 contests each; large salaries were offered to lure top players away from traditional tournament tennis.

Since 1973 the youth of the central city and adjacent suburbs have benefited from the National Jr. Tennis League, formed by James and Sally Young. It brings together local young tennis aspirants wishing to learn the game during the summer. Teams in 3 age groups (12, 14, and 18), play singles and doubles for 4 days at Gordon and Rockefeller parks. Tennis in the 1990s for most Clevelanders remained a luxury sport as more and more public facilities reduced access or closed, and most new private courts were established in the SUBURBS. The closing of the Clark Tennis Courts on the Shoreway seemed to underscore the point, despite the revitalization of nearby downtown Cleveland. However, the future of tennis in Greater Cleveland brightened considerably in 1995 when the U.S. Tennis Assoc. and the Tennis Industry Assoc. presented Cleveland-area USTA chapters with 2 grants worth $100,000 to promote interest in the sport through free clinics and similar programs for young people around the area.

Ted E. Worthington (dec.)


Grabowski, John J. Sports in Cleveland (1992).