It's all love in the growing game of tennis collecting

ANTIQUES Peter R. Solis Cohen contributed to this story.

August 22, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

"Tennis anyone?" That question isn't heard just at Flushing Meadows and Wimbledon. It now resounds from the antiques markets of Brimfield, Mass., to the flea markets at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. It's open season for tennis collecting, and antiques dealers and auctioneers nationwide are courting collectors and trying to get a grip on this novice market.

While millions of tennis players are satisfied scoring with a new graphite racket and a plastic can of fresh balls, for a growing circuit of tennis lovers there's no match for being surrounded by vintage wooden rackets, old metal cans of balls, trophies, tournament souvenirs and books, along with Victorian silver, prints, paintings, glassware, postcards, ceramics, photographs or anything else sporting tennis images.

Sharlene Sones, a promotions manager for Spalding, in Chicopee, Mass., which in 1888 manufactured the first tennis ball made in America, says: "I've always loved tennis. Collecting old rackets is something I do just for fun."

Although there's a clubbiness to most serious tennis collectors, "rivals always are tripping over each other, and the competition can be keen," says 20-year veteran Charles Hoey, of suburban Washington.

If there's ever a national tennis collecting tournament, seeded players bet Jeanne Cherry, of Santa Monica, Calif., will take home a championship trophy, adding it to the thousands of items she's assembled in the last five years. She's completing an illustrated book on collectible tennis memorabilia and equipment, since there's none on the subject. Hers isn't an easy collection to overlook: "I have nets, posts and chalk markers -- they're hard to hide," says Ms. Cherry, who's on the court five days a week and rates herself a "pretty good club player" and a "severely addicted" collector.

"At first I was an accumulator and bought everything in sight, and then I started getting discriminating. I had to. My house is full, and my husband is complaining."

Her partner of 39 years "just threw up his hands" when her latest acquisition rolled in: a 5-foot-tall, 2-foot-wide, late 19th-century lawn roller, for spiffing up a grass court. This all-English treasure "has a neat cast-iron rampant lion on it," Ms. Cherry says. She saw it advertised in an antiques newspaper and paid around $500, including delivery, the winning point: "Otherwise I would have had to roll it 2,000 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles."

You needn't spend a royal ransom to collect tennis souvenirs. Larry Whitaker, 31, a butcher in Campbell, Calif., displays more than 100 different tennis-ball cans in his living room. Old unopened metal key-wind models are the real winners. He's never paid more than $100 for a can; many are just a few dollars each. "I'm all excited when I know I'm going to get a can in the mail," says Mr. Whitaker, who buys nationwide, although he admits that sometimes "the waiting's more exciting than having it."

Jeanne Cherry says she searches Salvation Army and Goodwill shops for old rackets: "You can start collecting signature models there for about $2.50 each."

Although she has roughly 500 rackets already, Ms. Cherry just spent about $1,000 for a circa-1880 white ash racket bearing the impressed mark of Wright & Ditson, of Boston, one of the earliest American manufacturers. A dealer's wife bought it at Brimfield in May for $5. "She told him she found a nice racket but that it was a little warped," Ms. Cherry recounted. The racket wasn't warped at all: to those in the know, its asymmetrical top, called a "tilt-head," is a dead giveaway of the racket's age and desirability. (Other typical signs of an early racket: a concave or convex wooded wedge at the racket's throat held in place by two brass screws, an attached collar just below, a finely inlaid or incised all-wood handle, a sturdy wooden butt cap, and thick sheep- or cow-gut strings mellowed with age to an almost tobacco-brown color.)

Was the dealer upset with his wife's "mistake?" "No way," Ms. Cherry replied. "She's now his favorite flea market picker, and before the day ended she also found two other rackets worth $200 to $700 each. Tennis is such a new collecting area you can still discover good stuff at Brimfield. And, as prices get higher, things are bound to come out of closets and attics."

Auctioneer Brian Riba, of South Glastonbury, Conn., recently sold for $880 a circa-1903 advertising poster for Champion Tennis Shoes showing a woman on the court, racket in hand, wearing a flowing long skirt, typical tennis attire of the period. The colorful poster in good condition smashed its $200-to-$400 pre-sale estimate. "I don't see early tennis stuff too often," he said. Unlike the more established sport of golf collecting (from which pros say many collectors are fleeing to tennis because of skyrocketing golf prices and fakes on the market), "There may not be enough good tennis material out there for the field to develop," Mr. Riba observed.

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