Cumberland Times-News

June 5, 2008

In tennis, individuals face each other as equals

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

I'm not a sports person, but I like to watch tennis. During the three big summer tournaments - Paris, London and New York, played on three different surfaces - my TV is on, and I check the newspaper for details that I have missed.

Tennis was originally an indoor sports, played by Henry VIII at Hampton Court with rather different rules and a heavy, leather-covered ball that might have a deadly effect on anyone struck by it; spectators stayed behind a heavy rope netting.

By the end of the 19th century the game had moved outdoors. Grass-covered courts were shaped like hour-glasses, and the net was 5-feet high at the posts but only 3-feet at mid-court. The first tournament at Wimbledon was a novelty fundraiser for the local croquet club.

Here in Frostburg the first tennis courts were probably built to accommodate summer visitors at the Frost Mansion or Mrs. Beall's Cottages on Beall's Lane. Then, after the Women's Residence Hall was built on the Normal School campus in 1915, the narrow space behind it was leveled for tennis, and non-students were permitted to use the court, too.

The dormitory building was not big enough for the growing student body. As it was added to, the tennis courts had to be moved to the east end of the small campus, where they were soon supplanted by Allegany Gym. A new site was found at the corner of Maple Street and Park Avenue. I have two distinct memories of that gravel-surfaced area.

Not long after we came to Frostburg someone booked Alice Marble, who for some years had "owned'' the American tennis championship, to present a program at Frostburg. She gave her speech in the morning, but at lunchtime apologized for being unable to play the scheduled demonstration set in the afternoon: Thinking that all of Maryland was suburban to Baltimore, she had booked another appearance for 4 p.m. at Towson! Miss Compton intervened, "You signed a contact....'' and Marble had to stalk onto the court and whack a few balls while she grumbled noisily about the abominable condition of the court.

The other incident happened a few years later, when the tennis court was the spot for breaking ground for Gunter Hall. The honored gentleman had died, but five of his grandchildren attended the ceremonies and took their turn wielding yellow-ribboned shovels.

Consensus of the audience was that, had they been allowed to continue, construction of the building could have begun a week later. They were stopped, however; the disturbed ground was tamped back into place, and students played tennis on that court for at least six months afterward.

Expansion of the campus in the next few years provided plenty of space for tennis courts, but the powers that mattered in Baltimore refused to make tennis a budget item. They apparently didn't notice that the request for money for landscaping and fencing suddenly increased - and that was the way the next courts, down the hill from Compton Gym, came into being.

Those, too, are gone now, their space occupied by the Performing Arts Center, but until they were superseded by the present facilities behind the Cordts Complex, they saw a good bit of activity, involving students, faculty, staff and townspeople.

Bill and I batted balls with our children there. An impressive town quartet - Cheney, Sager, Workman and Schlosstein - entertained us with stinging serves and spectacular saves. But we had to quit as darkness fell: Those courts were not lighted.

In spite of the instruction I got at college, my tennis never looked like what I watch on TV. I served to put the ball in play; my objective was to hit the ball to the other side of the net, without any plan for handling the return. I had neither power nor skill - but I had fun!

Thinking back, I have a feeling that one of the major turning points of my life happened on a tennis court. I had met Bill when he was an assistant instructor (read that as "gofer'') in the course I was taking at the University of Pennsylvania, and during the summer break he had a temporary job in the bank where I worked. We saw each other from time to time, and one day he suggested that we play tennis after work.

I don't remember where we played. It must have been a public park, with a row of asphalted courts, where a miss-hit ball rolled merrily away. When I had played tennis with other young men, they always made a point of jumping the net or running over several courts to retrieve the errant balls. But Bill didn't! He stood patiently on his side of the net while I retrieved the balls that had gone astray on mine.

My first reaction was annoyance: a gentleman would not expect a young lady to chase balls! But then it suddenly dawned on me that Bill was paying me a compliment; he was treating me as an equal! He thought of me as a worthy opponent in a tennis game, not as a silly female who was only capable of playing patty-cake!

To make a long story short - we got married. That tennis game was the beginning of 60 years of equal teamwork, on and off the tennis court.

The sport has change in my lifetime. The court surfaces are much improved; the rackets are no longer gut-strung wooden weapons; serious players are not expected to appear in spotless white; and balls fly back and forth at incredible speed.

But individuals still face each other across the net as equals, regardless of the country of their origin or the economic status of their parents. The big tournaments are, in a sense, a restatement of what Bill and I found on that public court so many years ago.

I'm only a spectator these days, but tennis is still my sport.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.