Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Tennis Way: Forest Hills Gardens & The Nationals

Station Square/FH Inn
Every so often, I get the urge to return to my natal stream, so to speak; not to spawn like salmon do, but to wander the streets, closes, crescents, and open greens of my native Forest Hills Gardens and an especially familiar old habitat of mine, the West Side Tennis Club, with its aging Stadium.

The urge is strongest this time of year, just before the U.S. Open.

A little more than 35 years ago, when someone mentioned “Forest Hills,” even people who weren’t tennis fans immediately recognized that place as a Mecca of the international game: Only Wimbledon was better known. But, that was in 1977, the last year the Open was held at WSTC.

One didn’t have to grow up there and attend their first “Nationals,” as the tournament was then called, as I did in 1956, to have distinct memories of the place. Today, when people hear the name, they still fondly recall their trips, perhaps with their parents or grandparents to see the best tennis in the world, played on the soft green lawns on warm, crisp September afternoons: never at night.

C.S. Church For Sale
As much as I’ve come to appreciate the Open’s more public venue at Flushing, I do not think it snooty of me to say the mention of that particular name does not quite approach the same pleasant mental reaction as “Forest Hills” did.

That’s branding for you, and the Russell Sage Foundation, which commissioned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. and architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design “The Gardens,” knew something about branding. They also knew that, by luring the club to its 10 acres from its old home on Manhattan’s West Side (hence the name), it would make a nice marketing anchor for the new homes going up around it on Exeter, Harrow, Groton, and Dartmouth streets, and the Greenway Terraces.

It worked extraordinarily well, and the 175-acre community spawned about 800 houses and several attractive apartment buildings, all of them topped with the mandatory English-style red-tiled roofs. And, in the middle of it all, was a neighborhood gem of a public school, P.S. 101.

Does that sound perfect? It pretty much was. And, good thing too, because the one thing that WSTC and the stadium did not have much of was parking. So, those who forsook the subway and Long Island Railroad, which is to say just about everybody, had to get there early and desperately search for parking. This was, to say the least, discouraged by the Gardens, whose residents walked to see the matches, probably with free tickets in their pockets.

Greenway South
For old times sake, it might be fun to imagine the path of one of those parking searches and strolls to the club or stadium. This is a trip you can try today, but don’t even think about the parking part, just take a ride around The Gardens, or, better yet, take the subway and walk.

Let’s imagine that our Country Squire or little MG exits a parkway onto Jewel Avenue and south across Queens Boulevard, then under the LIRR trestle across Continental Avenue. Upon entering cobbled Station Square, with the Forest Hills Inn to our left, we’re instantly transported to the English village of the designers’ imaginations.

Since we’ve been here before, we know not to go straight, under the arched bridge by Dartmouth Street; nobody is lucky enough to find a space that close to the club.
Instead, we go left and then right, under another arched bridge to enter the Greenways, then bear left up Greenway North, with its shaded attached homes and the long open green on our right, broken by a circle of benches across from a Moorish church (currently for sale).

We continue as the green widens at Flagpole Park, whose flag still flies atop the mast of the 1899 and 1901 America’s Cup Winner, Columbia. We go right at Slocum Crescent, then a quick left on Standish Road, and, hey, there’s parking in that private driveway for ten bucks!

Tennis Place/"Way"
We hand over the sawbuck to a very young man sporting a crewcut, who assures us that it is indeed his parents’ driveway (fingers crossed on that), then we wander away towards Russell Place, around stately P.S. 101, and down Slocum Crescent the other way across Greenway South and then the same Continental Avenue on to Exeter Street, with its still shady trees despite losing some  to disease years ago and a dozen more to Sandy) and brick and stucco homes.

At Tennis Place, we turn right. Proust had his Guermantes Way, but this is my “way,” as I made hundreds of trips through Tennis Place to and from my home, WSTC, and my grandfather’s house on Fleet Street.

As we come around a soft bend, we head to and across Dartmouth Street, past my old apartment building and the little courtyard where I learned to play tennis against a wall; and, since we have clubhouse passes, into the WSTC itself. Now, we probably need a gin and tonic, Florida Special, or Cock N’ Bull brand (best ever) ginger beer at the terrace bar.

Gold & Blue
There must have been at least a few imperfect days at Forest Hills back then, which were uncomfortably humid or hot. And, I distinctly remember players donning spiked shoes to play (and tear up) the grass courts slick from light rain. But, honestly, it’s hard to summon up memories of anything other than perfect weather, maybe with a light breeze and a hint of autumn in the air.

It was not uncommon for ladies to wear skirts or summer dresses to show off their summer tans. Spectators walking the field court areas or lunching under the gold and blue awnings at the Clubhouse might have even worn Shetland sweaters around their shoulders, an image that seems other-worldly in these days of more advanced global warming (not to mention gym shorts and tank tops); I do not think that I’ll be wearing a sweater next week at Flushing “Meadow.”

Forest Hills stadium has definitely faded over the years and recently survived a plan to turn it into attractive apartments. Instead, there is a move on to revive it as a concert venue, with a sold-out Mumford & Sons show set for late August. The clubhouse itself and surrounding courts look remarkably good, although a ladies’ over-thirty tournament left the grass court baselines scuffed and torn; but that is how it goes with east coast lawn tennis, played atop relatively soft earth, unlike Wimbledon’s fuzzy concrete.

Some might say the club and its stadium are well past their prime. But, who cares? To true tennis aficionados, the WSTC's stadium is hallowed ground, like the old Yankee Stadium (both were built in 1923; only one survives).

What does hold meaning for me, and many others, I think, is that great athletic contests and feats occurred there not so long ago, in a game played on lawns, with grass-stained white balls, mostly with wooden racquets, in a more or less private world, but far less privileged than some of its detractors might imagine.

Their loss, I’d say. Love and love.

All photos by Author/Thanks to WSTC for permission to shoot.

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