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County's Tennis Clubs Courting Wider Audience

The Great Outdoors: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
| IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

May 23, 1997|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bar was usually full, but sometimes the courts weren't. Then new owner Ken Stuart took over and now you don't want to join the Palisades Tennis Club for the card games.

If you want to play tennis, though, there might not be a better place on earth.

And you don't even have to try to match schedules with anyone: You call the Newport Beach club, select any day and any time you like and pick singles or doubles. After that, all you have to do is show up and remember to bring your racket. The Palisades staff--with an assist from a computer program Stuart wrote--puts together a match with a player or players whose ability level mirrors yours.

"This place used to be old, a lot of guys playing cards and drinking," said Hans Loschl, a chef at Santa Ana Country Club who was a member at the facility when it was the John Wayne Tennis Club. "But after Ken took over, the whole atmosphere has changed. There are a lot more young people, and you can get any kind of match, any time." Members are graded on the National Tennis Rating Program, which uses a scale of 1 to 10 at half-point increments. The computer sorts through more than 500 members and the staff starts calling--in reverse order of those who played most recently--until they fill out the match.

The computer also flags your name if you haven't played in a couple of weeks and a staff member will call to ask why. If you've been too busy at work, you'll be reminded of the stress-reduction properties of exercise and pressed to set up a match at your earliest possible convenience.

Is this tennis nirvana or what?

And the country-club atmosphere remains intact--the men's locker room, for example, is luxurious--and the courts are nestled against the lush fairways of a golf course.

Palisades hosted the U.S.-Netherlands Davis Cup tie last month and three of the courts have been resurfaced with Plexipave, the same stuff Andre Agassi has on his backyard court. It's the slowest of hardcourt surfaces, but slows the ball without drastically changing the trajectory of the bounce.

"You'd be surprised the difference it makes," said Gary Lindstrom, regional manager for California Products Corp., the company that makes the surface. "For average players like you and me, it really makes the game a lot more fun."

So why isn't there a line to sign up at Palisades extending down Pacific Coast Highway? The fee. For singles, there's a one-time payment of $1,000 and a $122 monthly charge; for families, it's $1,500 and $141 a month.

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"A tennis court is a tennis court and the outdoors is outdoors," says Cathy Binnquist, owner of the 30-year-old Costa Mesa Tennis Club, which welcomes anyone who can pay the fee: $4 an hour on weekdays, $6 in the evening and on weekends.

"Really, tennis players have two basic needs, a clean court and a good net."

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Binnquist, 47, was director of tennis at the club for eight years before taking over two years ago. Three weeks ago, she received a bachelor's degree in finance from Southern California College with the help of an athletic scholarship. Needless to say, she was the elder member of the team and in January, her son married her doubles partner.

Running the Costa Mesa Tennis Club is not exactly high finance--Binnquist said she raised the club's revenue about $20,000 in her first year--but she's studying the industry and moving aggressively to make it profitable.

And she has a strong group of regulars because she provides more than just a good surface and net.

"We all know the tennis industry is in decline, so my goal has always been to offer an affordable substitute to joining a club," she said. "We make people feel special, like they do belong to a private club.

"The courts are always washed. We've planted a lot of flowers. The restrooms are new and we have a pro shop, which we're remodeling right now."

There is no computer program to match players, but Binnquist offers group lessons and also promotes a number of tournaments--for men, women, seniors and mixed doubles--good ways for people to meet opponents of equal skill.

"Matching people with similar ability is a huge, huge factor in the success of any tournament," Binnquist said. "We rate on the NTRP scale. I've only got to watch you hit for a few minutes to be able to rank you."

For regular players who meet to play once or twice a week on free public courts, the Costa Mesa Tennis Club--open 9 to 9 on weekdays and 9 until dark on weekends--offers a comforting bit of predictability. You can reserve the court two days in advance and play as long as you want to pay for it.

Said Binnquist: "And you know that there won't be a family reunion with a barbecue on the next court."

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Corona del Mar High's Jenny Meyers ran down a drop shot and flicked a cross-court winner past her teaching pro, Butch Young.

She wiped the sweat off her forehead, but not the smile off her face. It was a gorgeous afternoon for tennis and it's always fun to slip one past your instructor.

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