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Your inner Serena

Get a racket and hit a public court. 100-mph serve not required.

September 09, 2004|Laurie Drake | Special to The Times

Every morning, the ladies of Rustic Canyon play doubles at 9 on Court 3. One day I want to be one of them, spending my golden years squabbling over scores and hitting moonballs and saying "Got it!" as I cover for my partner. And I want to do it here, in this bowl of a park between Rustic and Santa Monica canyons in Pacific Palisades, with views of treetops all around and a caught-in-time look that takes me back to my childhood in East Whittier. Which is about the last time I ever had fun exercising, and certainly the last time I ever took tennis lessons. But after rediscovering the sport a few years ago, I've become a connoisseur of classes at the parks in my area.

There was my first love, the rec center in Pacific Palisades where, if I lobbed a ball over the fence, a purebred dog would retrieve it, and where my classmates wore Chanel sunglasses and big diamond studs. Then I took private lessons in Santa Monica at Reed Park, down on Lincoln and Wilshire, where the homeless applaud your shots (they know a good backhand down the line when they see it).

But as my addiction to tennis grew, I needed more and cheaper sources. There was the 9 a.m. class at Marine Park near the Santa Monica Airport, where the courts are wedged between a ball field and the backs of houses. (But I loved the teacher.) I didn't like the teacher at Douglas Park, up at 25th and Wilshire, but everyone else did.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Tennis photo credit -- A photo in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section showing tennis players at Pacific Palisades' Rustic Canyon Recreation Center was credited to Iris Schneider. It was taken by Times photographer Ken Hively.

Then I found Rustic Canyon, and I was home. There's something about the way Rob Myers structures the class, with 30 minutes of forehand, backhand, volley and serving drills, followed by 30 minutes of doubles. (First you practice your technique, then you vent your frustration.) We scream, we yell, we laugh, we whack the living daylights out of the ball or send it into the net. We ask the ladies on Court 3 to return our balls. You can tell we annoy them. But we don't care because, for this one hour of the day, we're kids again.

Though Rustic Canyon may be my secret, there are a lot of other secrets out there, about 380 public courts across the county of Los Angeles, many underused, especially on weekdays. (Note to the self-employed: taking advantage of them is one of our job benefits.) With the climate here, this may be the best place on the planet to play tennis.

Neighborhood tennis courts each have their own personality. The kids of Russian immigrants are hitting hard at Poinsettia Recreation Center near the Fairfax district, and the Filipino players at the Brandford courts in Arleta could go head to head with the folks in Cheviot Hills (another group that's got game). Reed Park in Santa Monica attracts a more leisurely set of hitters.

The tranquil Harvard Rec Center on a tree-lined street near Inglewood is a training ground for future Venuses and Serenas. In fact, when the sisters were younger, they played in tournaments at the granddaddy of all our facilities, the Griffith Park courts on Riverside Drive, along with other homegrown heroes like Pete Sampras and Michael Chang.

"It used to be that each community park had its own team, and on weekends they'd play against each other," says Michael Davidson, who runs the L.A. Metropolitan Tennis Tournament, which will be 88 years old when it's held at the Griffith Park tennis stadium next year. "It was an all-day event -- you'd bring the kids and have a barbecue and play tennis, and it was a way to experience the culture of that area. The players from Valley Plaza in North Hollywood would go to Lincoln Park and have carne asada. People enjoyed getting out of their own neighborhoods."

Now they're staying closer to home, disinclined to drive, he says. More's the pity. There are some gems of courts out there, not necessarily in your backyard.

Navigating the system is easier than it looks, with tennis facilities falling into one of two camps. Open-play courts are free and first-come, first-serve, but they usually lack an on-site staffer, because there's no need to take money. Reservation/pay courts charge an hourly fee and require a check-in with an administrator in a booth (who may also come out to kick freeloaders off the courts, er, advise them of the policy).

If you're feeling lucky, you can just show up at a pay facility without a reservation and try to rent a court, but it's safer to spring for a city of L.A. Tennis Registration Card ($15 a year), which allows you to book ahead using a touch-tone phone reservation system. (A recording offers you a choice of eight facilities: Cheviot Hills, Pacific Palisades, Westchester, Westwood, Balboa, Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks, Griffith/Riverside and Griffith/Vermont Canyon.)

Incorporated cities like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, Glendale and Santa Clarita have their own courts, fees and reservation cards -- check out their websites -- but you don't have to be a resident to walk on and play there.

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