A century of sending shots across the net

Party: Members of Maryland's oldest municipal tennis club will celebrate its 100th birthday Sept. 14 in Clifton Park, playing the game they love.

September 03, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

William H. Jensen, 87, owns something rare -- white tennis duck pants --which he just might wear to the Clifton Tennis Club's 100th birthday party Sept. 14, celebrating a century in Baltimore as Maryland's oldest municipal tennis club.

But partygoers won't have to worry about the brick red clay dust that used to mark shoes, shirts and shorts so clearly that people knew you had just come from Clifton Park. The clay courts were replaced years ago with a hard surface.

Jensen's long white pants recall the genteel look of the 1930s. That was the decade when The Evening Sun municipal tennis tournament started, arresting attention from spectators on a shady hill near the Northeast Baltimore park's Mansion House. Female players like Libby Bonthron wore knee-length dresses, a far cry from the skin-tight, black outfit that Serena Williams sported at this year's U.S. Open.

Jensen doesn't play anymore, but he and several men in their later years perch most summer days on the green "old-timers bench" to watch matches on the park's 11 courts. And they often conjure up the 27 vanished clay courts on which Eastern sectionals and Maryland's best tennis were once played.

The elders enjoy a teasing camaraderie. "We kid each other," Jensen said yesterday. "It's good companionship."

"They never miss a shot from up there on the bench," said Warren Elliott, 80, a club member and retired engineer. "They're always in position, always ready."

Elliott believes tennis is an elixir. "It makes your life longer," he said. "It keeps you alive."

He and others talk of Arthur Ashe playing here as a 17-year-old wunderkind from Richmond, Va. They mention two local girls who grew up to play on the women's professional tour: Pam Shriver and Elise Burgin.

In her memoirs, Shriver recalls her rivalry with Burgin: "We'd been playing each other ever since the day she was 9 and I was 8 and she creamed me 6-1, 6-1, at Clifton Park in Baltimore."

Magic of Clifton

Bob Campbell, a teaching pro at Friends Racquet Club, says Clifton had a certain magic for aspiring players in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"To stand on that hill and look down on all that red clay. ... That's where I learned to play," Campbell said. "People would hang out for the whole day, kids and adults. It was a beautiful place to play with the Mansion House behind."

For those who watched or played in summers past, the tournament known as "The Evening Sun" -- named for a newspaper that also has disappeared -- is shorthand for a golden chapter in Clifton tennis history. The game's popularity rose nationwide in the 1970s, and some at the club don't mind a bit that the craze has quieted down.

200 members

Yet members -- drawn mainly from Baltimore City and Baltimore County -- do not live on nostalgia alone. Two hundred members strong, the Clifton Tennis Club has an active schedule of doubles leagues and round-robins four out of five weeknights all summer long.

"It's all for the very exorbitant entrance fee of $30," said Joseph A. Costanza, 79, one of the regulars who describes himself as the "social director."

Because the club uses public courts that are open to all and maintained by the city Department of Recreation and Parks, the fee is modest.

Mindy Fisher, 51, said she often drives from Monkton to play doubles at Clifton because, "It's just a really nice group of people I've met in the atmosphere down there."

This is her second season, but as a girl she watched her father play on the red clay courts.

"Today it's young and alive," she said. "There's a lot of pick-up games, which is nice to see."

Running counter to the lily-white image that characterized tennis for decades, the club is racially integrated, with an easy mix of black and white across the net.

"It's always a friendly group," said Brian Stanley, 43, of Northwood. "I'd come out to play and the courts were all full, so here I am."

Besides, he said, gesturing to the group of older men, "These guys ... keep me laughing."

Stanley plays six times a week in the summer. "Clifton's a good place to meet USTA [United States Tennis Association] players," he said.

Stanley was the runner-up in a club singles tournament during the Labor Day weekend.

For the Sept. 14 celebration, open to past and current members, Stanley suggested a "Century Doubles Tournament," in which the combined age of each team is at least 100.

The idea took, so he is responsible for coming up with the tournament draw -- and finding a partner.

"I have to find someone who's 57," he said.

Fisher has an even tougher matchmaking challenge: She is scouting for a partner for her daughter, Jessica, 21.

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