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Tennis center deserves support of the community

It's a funky, bustling, friendly, down-to-earth old tennis club. The St. Petersburg Tennis Center at Bartlett Park is a curious and wonderful place. Look at the cars in the parking lot: a sleek Jaguar swings in next to a road-worn Chevy, a racy Corvette sits in the shade next to a dusty Ford. But once on the courts, the owners are measured by a different standard. Tennis reigns supreme. There are few occasions in life where one can participate in a sport that crosses more generational, cultural, racial and socioeconomic barriers: a female police officer volleys with a corporate executive, a retired admiral hits with an interior designer. Tall or short, rich or poor, fat or skinny, handsome or homely, these traits take second place to a player's tennis skills (along with his or her accurate line-calls).

This may not be the place for those concerned with their upward social mobility, but for the more confident, rich rewards come from those on-court and off-court experiences. Not long after a newcomer appears on the porch, he will most likely be asked to join a doubles match. The Tennis Center is prized for its long porch, where players catch the breeze, greet old friends and share the gossip of the day. What experience comes close to this wholesome mix? Well, maybe making music together in a group comes close.

The 60-year-old Tennis Center's past is legendary. Through its gates have walked Chris Evert, Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Martina Navratilova, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and many other tennis superstars.

Just last month the Women's Tennis Association, in celebrating its move to St. Petersburg, added to the list of Tennis Center honors by holding a clinic and exhibition match on the stadium court featuring Chris Evert and Mayor Dave Fischer and Wendy Turnbull and WTA Director Gerry Smith. In an outpouring of genuine support and warm greeting to this new addition to our community, members on short notice painted the club inside and out, planted flowers and hung welcoming banners.

In her address on stadium court, Chris Evert advised the tennis community to keep the St. Petersburg Tennis Center strong, because it is at public courts like this that many tennis legends have had their start. Many do not have the thousands of dollars needed to join country clubs. The St. Petersburg Tennis Center has 15 Har-Tru courts, and is the city's only public soft-court facility. With the relocation of the Women's Tennis Association to St. Petersburg, there is a renewed emphasis on tennis in our area. And how deserved it is! It is a sport for a lifetime.

The Tennis Center has experienced a loss in membership in the last few years. At one time it was the only tennis facility in the area, and now there are many tennis clubs. Some decry the declining neighborhood. But the neighborhood is stabilizing, the newly painted facility hasn't looked so good in years, and a healthy tennis facility will only help prevent neighborhood decline. Low daily court fees or yearly membership dues make playing on the well-kept courts a real bargain. The St. Petersburg Tennis Center is aggressively and successfully recruiting new individual members and has added a new corporate membership classification, to which the WTA last month became the club's first subscriber.

The St. Petersburg Tennis Center at Bartlett Park, Fourth Street and 22nd Avenue S, is a historic and unique tennis facility. Our community should support it.

Ann Sackett is a member of the center's board.