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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4/30/03 ]

Tennis Town USA: Atlanta bucks trend with sport booming

By PLOTT BRICE and LYNN KINNEY
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writers

Mike Perry was a tennis pro in his native Rhode Island 14 years ago when he began observing a disturbing trend and potential personal financial threat: People weren't playing tennis.

"A friend of mine back then said to me, 'If this is what you really want to do with your life, then you need to go down to Atlanta and check out this ALTA scene,' " Perry said.

Perry, now the head pro at BridgeMill in Canton, is one of hundreds of professionals who have been drawn to what has become a virtual epicenter of tennis in the United States. They have come to an area that builds as many as 500 tennis courts a year, where two major tennis organizations have combined memberships the size of a small city.


They have come to the place where, from 1987 to 2001, one tennis organization grew from 60,000 to more than 80,000 while the number of people playing nationwide dropped 30 percent, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Ron Shields, an independent tennis pro in north Fulton County who's also a consultant to tennis facilities across the country, puts it like this: "I came here because of tennis."

In his hometown of Little Rock, Shields said tennis was available primarily through private clubs, as it is in many cities. "In Atlanta, it's accessible to everybody," he said. Metro Atlanta parks and recreation departments pay close attention to tennis, and developers for the past three decades have considered swim and tennis clubs in residential developments essential.

"I thought there was an ordinance that required every developer to have at least two tennis courts per subdivision," quipped Matt Olson of the Atlanta Community Tennis Association.

Home buyers have come to expect them.

"It's a necessity," said Randy Feinberg, president and owner of Southeastern Tennis Courts, the oldest among 15 to 20 local businesses that construct courts. "You cannot build a subdivision here without putting tennis facilities in." Feinberg's company alone builds about 100 courts a year.

Developer Jim Cowart built his first swim and tennis club in the mid-'60s at Dunwoody's Village Mill. "We had actually started the subdivision, and the homeowners asked for a swim and tennis, so we added it. And we've been doing it ever since. Our rule of thumb quickly became if we had over 100 lots, we put in the swim and tennis."

Courts are plentiful
Metro Atlanta's abundance of public facilities is in no small way responsible for the health of the game here. Atlanta alone has about 200 courts, and the metro counties are all home to multicourt tennis centers such as Blackburn, with 18 courts, and North and South Fulton, with 24 courts each. Gwinnett County's Stone Mountain Tennis Center, a 1996 Olympic legacy, has 16 courts, including an 8,200-seat stadium.

What Shields calls Atlanta's "tennis infrastructure" extends to apartment complexes. "It's a marketing feature for this property," said Shields, resident pro at Huntcliff Village apartments in north Fulton County. "That's not normal outside of Atlanta."

What is it about Atlanta that makes tennis work here? Is the enthusiasm for the game due to the abundance of courts? Or the abundance of courts due to an unusual enthusiasm?

Some trace tennis' popularity to Atlantan Bryan "Bitsy" Grant, who in 1934 won his second U.S. Clay Court Championship, one of many achievements that would earn him comparison to legendary golfer and Atlantan Bobby Jones. That same year, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, or ALTA, was first registered with the United States Lawn Tennis Association.

"[Grant] was a Bobby Jones-type figure," said Shields, who worked at Grant's namesake, the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center on Northside Drive in Atlanta, for several years.

But it wasn't until the early 1970s that ALTA really became the organization it is today and began stoking public interest in tennis through league play.

While the popularity of tennis was waning nationally, ALTA's numbers rose from 60,000 members in the 1980s to today's 80,000-plus. The number of teams in the mixed doubles league will top 1,450 this summer, 50 more teams than last summer.

An all-volunteer organization, ALTA has traditionally operated in the five-county metro area -- Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. Amendments have been made to include Fayette, Cherokee and Coweta counties.

To be an ALTA site, a facility must have two lighted courts and restrooms. ALTA has more than 1,500 approved sites.

More than just a hobby

In most cities, tennis players who want to participate in league play join USTA. Atlantans can participate in both USTA and ALTA, another factor in the game's consistent growth here.

Of the 55,000 USTA members in Georgia, 45,000 are in metro Atlanta.

"It has gotten to be a lifestyle in metro Atlanta, whereas in other parts of the country, it's more of a hobby," said Perry.

That "lifestyle" can hardly be stereotyped. Atlanta's tennis scene is shared by 9-year-olds dreaming of the circuit; 75-year-olds determined to stay active; mothers of preschoolers; inner-city youth; and suburban couples and singles.

"I've been playing for 30 years," said Mary App, 75, who plays out of Martin's Landing in north Fulton. "USTA, ALTA, mixed."

Ken Bomar, president of ALTA, recalls a conversation at a recent match. "One of my teammates was telling a guy on the other team: 'You know, if it wasn't for ALTA, we wouldn't be doing this.' That is, sitting around after a match and talking and getting to know each other."

"It is part of the culture of metro Atlanta," said the ACTA's Olson.

So much so that not playing can be alienating. When Jane Kirby first moved into her Peachtree Corners neighborhood, she joined a bridge group to get to know her neighbors.

"It was hard to get the conversation going in any other direction than ALTA," she said.

ALTA fans would defend its predominance. President Bomer points to the "friendly atmosphere" of its doubles-only format and how easy it is to play. "All you need is a racket and $20 to join."

The organization's success extends to the professional circuit -- touring pros Brian Vahaly, Robby Genipri and Ansley Cargill started in ALTA and USTA junior events.

"There are so many good kids who come out of Atlanta and play in college and make it to the circuit," said Shields. "Florida has been known for that, but we have kids coming out of Georgia who are just as good or better."

ACTA also develops kids in inner-city after-school programs, something the USTA puts a lot of money and muscle into.

"We have some 1,500 kids involved in the program and 300 who are serious enough to come to practice twice a week," said ACTA's Matt Olson. "Soon, we hope to . . . fund private lessons and help them to get to the level of tournament play."

Growth on Southside

While most ALTA mass is north of I-20, the Southside is catching up. The sprawling complex at Peachtree City is alive with league teams and has attracted the SEC Women's championships.

Clayton County's Parks and Recreation Department will open a new 17-court complex at Clayton International Park May 31.

"There is a huge interest down here," said executive director Gary Dukes. "We are still in the process of finishing [the complex] and people are banging on the doors about ALTA teams." ALTA, known even on the grounds of Wimbledon, has been looked at by other cities, but its success has never been duplicated.

Phoenix is trying, and the founders of Arizona Tennis Association, or ATA, studied ALTA in 1988 before forming ATA, which now has about 6,000 members. "I think it could be duplicated, but there would be challenges," said BridgeMill's Perry. "You have to have lots of courts and access to them. The developers would have to buy into it. So, just duplicating ALTA in other cities would be a challenge from that standpoint."

So far, the enthusiasm for tennis has not translated to supporting pro tournaments.

Or, as tennis great Billie Jean King once remarked, "Atlanta is a city that loves to play. They don't like to watch."

"It's crazy," said Ashley Mitchell, who with her husband, Scott, teaches at Terrell Mill and Legacy Park in Cobb County.

"Most of the people I work with wouldn't go watch any match, but they go crazy about playing. And in Atlanta, there are a lot of players."

Strangely enough, Atlanta has not been able to successfully promote a professional tennis tournament over a long period of time.
 

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See this is what pisses me off about my city. Tennis is everywhere... Atlantans literally breathe the hard court but can we get a WTA or ATP tournament to STAY here. No... :fiery:
 

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I live in Atlanta also and you would think that if Charleston or Amelia Island can host an event and keep it in place WTF is wrong with Atlanta!
 
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