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Tampa nets quite a tennis legacy in its history

Like most things social and athletic, tennis made its Tampa debut at Henry Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel during the late 19th century.

Tennis was likely among the amenities enjoyed by Tampa Bay Hotel guests from the first winter season in 1891. The hotel occasionally held competitions , as a story from the Jan. 22, 1902, Tampa Tribune points out. That particular match featured two hotel guests: Miss Woodward of South Norwalk, Conn., versus Mrs. Monroe of New York City. Monroe won the match and with it a "handsome racket." The story concluded that "the match yesterday was one of the prettiest ever seen on the Tampa Bay grounds."

Initially most of the tennis players at the Tampa Bay Hotel were out-of-town guests. The game began to catch on locally, however, and Tampans started to use the hotel courts, particularly in the off season. In 1903, two clubs emerged: the Hyde Park Tennis Club and the Tampa Heights Club.

Teens proved to be the driving force behind these clubs, but they ultimately folded, as did every other group that attempted to organize prior to 1917.

Knowing of the tentative nature of these tennis clubs, the Tribune suggested a collaboration between Tampa's fledgling tennis community and the new Palma Ceia Golf Club which opened on the Interbay Peninsula in late 1916. The paper pointed out the benefits of such a merger and editorialized that "tennis should be fostered in Tampa. It is valuable as an attraction to tourists and while not to be ranked with golf as a drawing card, it will help golf a great deal."

Palma Ceia merged with the Tampa Tennis and Canoe Club in January 1917, and the club constructed two new courts, under the supervision of William Trice, near today's MacDill Avenue.

Members of the Kissimmee and Jacksonville clubs inspected and approved the new courts, and efforts were begun to hold an inter-city tournament at Palma Ceia that would pit Tampa's best players against players from St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Clearwater and other Florida cities.

Trice also eagerly started a city tournament similar to the annual golf tournament. in November of that year. The field consisted of 32 men competing for a silver trophy in both singles and doubles competition.

Tournaments continued at Palma Ceia over the next several years, but interest in tennis in Tampa overall waned by the early 1920s. The Tampa Tennis Club, another in a long line of independent tennis groups, disbanded in 1922.

Participation in the sport picked up again three years later with the opening of the Davis Islands Tennis Club on the newly- created island development. D. P. Davis, developer of Davis Islands, created the club and built an incredibly lavish clubhouse and grounds devoted to the sport. The club offered eight clay tennis courts plus social privileges to members.

As soon as it opened in early 1925 the Davis Islands club hosted a large tennis tournament called the Dixie Cup. It was likely the successor of a southern tournament that was played in different cities every year in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Players from around the country, as well as local talent, appeared in the spring tournament. The Dixie Cup gained quite a following and was part of Tampa's tennis scene for decades.

In the late 1980s, the club gave way to added construction at Tampa General Hospital. It was replaced by the Sandra Freedman Courts at Marjorie Park on Davis Islands.

Tampa's other boom-era developments also included tennis as one of their many offerings. Forest Hills Country Club included a large tennis complex, and Temple Terrace offered the sport as well. Members of the Tampa Yacht and Country Club enjoyed tennis at their facility, and its healthy and spirited competition with the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club continues to this day.

By the 1930s, there were also several municipal courts in Tampa, proving that tennis was growing in popularity independent of the local, private clubs. These new municipal courts included the original courts at the Tampa Bay Hotel (which became the University of Tampa in 1931); Robles Park and Hillsborough High School, both on Central Avenue in Tampa Heights; Cuscaden Park on Columbus Drive in Ybor City; Macfarlane Park on Lisbon (MacDill) Avenue; and Rey Park on Howard Avenue in West Tampa.

In just over 30 years, tennis had transformed from a game played by wealthy winter visitors to one that could be enjoyed by almost anyone in Tampa.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached via email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.

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