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Tennis, Anyone? Anyone??

A 1970s craze sparked a boom in private clubs. Since then, waning interest has led to a glut of such properties, now hot only as real estate.

January 06, 2006|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

When Lenny Lindborg opened his Huntington Beach tennis club in the late 1970s, the golden era of tennis was in full swing.

Some 36 million Americans had rackets in their hands, boys and girls dreamed of being the next Jimmy Connors or Chris Evert, and millions were mesmerized by John McEnroe's volatile but winning style.

Court time was so coveted at the Lindborg Racquet Club that he charged $1,200 for a membership. But as golf began to overtake tennis as the sport of the upwardly mobile and America's fascination with 24-hour fitness clubs and action sports grew, Lindborg's courts emptied.

"During lunchtime, you could shoot a cannon through the place," he said. "Nobody's there."

In 2004, Lindborg sold his 4.6-acre property to Seabreeze Church for $5.2 million -- 10 times his original investment. "I didn't want to sell," he said. "But the land kept going up in value. I had no choice."

Lindborg's story is a familiar one. During the sport's peak in the mid-1970s, developers couldn't build private clubs fast enough to satisfy the public's urge to whack a fuzzy yellow ball.

The building boom continued through the 1980s, even as the number of recreational tennis players fell by more than half and cheap-to-build suburban public courts flooded the landscape.

Faced with these pressures, owners of private clubs nationwide have found salvation in the real estate boom and cashed out, selling their acres of courts to the highest bidders -- usually developers looking to build homes or shopping centers.

"When private owners can put that land to a different use because of the red-hot real estate market, it's a tough thing to combat," said Henry Talbert, director of the Southern California Tennis Assn., the sport's local governing body.

The demise of the private tennis club has touched nearly every region of the country, from San Francisco to Kansas City to New York, where four Manhattan facilities recently closed.

Hardest hit is Southern California, where private clubs, once only for the rich, proliferated after World War II to serve a growing upper-middle class.

Half of Orange County's 22 tennis-only private clubs have been bulldozed and replaced by shopping malls, condos and homes in the last 15 years.

In San Diego, four private clubs have closed in the last two years, and only a few remain. The Los Angeles area recently lost private clubs in mid-Wilshire, Northridge and Thousand Oaks.

"Southern California was for a long time the vineyard of tennis," said Bud Collins, the Hall of Fame tennis writer, who noted that the region has produced some of the game's greatest stars, including Jack Kramer, Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzalez, Billie Jean King, Pete Sampras and Tracy Austin.

In the 1930s and '40s, many of the region's elite players honed their skills at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and played in the year's biggest amateur tournament, the Pacific Southwest Tennis Championships.

The L.A. Tennis Club was a place where hoi polloi could rub elbows with Hollywood stars such as William Powell, Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who were regulars.

The club is still thriving, with about 400 members and a waiting list. So is the Jack Kramer Club in Rolling Hills Estates.

But the Kramer Club was forced to become a member-owned cooperative in the mid-1960s and the L.A. Tennis Club has always been member-owned. Had making a profit been the goal, it is unlikely that either one would still be open.

"It's a hard business to make a profit," said Kramer, who won Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles in the 1940s. "Paying for the maintenance of the courts, the clubhouse, the parking area -- that's expensive.... We couldn't make any money."

Kramer, 84, remembers the glory days of tennis, when a galaxy of stars prompted fans to join clubs, where they would wear pressed white skirts and hip-hugging white shorts, swing wooden rackets and adjourn for cocktails at courtside. It was a civilized venue for a regal sport.

"It's a sad thing when a club closes," Kramer said. "It's like a ship going down."

Alan Schwartz, chairman of Chicago-based Tennis Corp. of America, which owns more than 40 private clubs, has saved several from going under in recent years and resurrected others that were in foreclosure.

"I'm sitting here with two clubs myself that are barely hanging in there," he said. "I know if I didn't care deeply about tennis, there'd be a financial opportunity to use the land for other things."

Some clubs have survived by moving beyond tennis and offering aerobics, yoga, swimming and basketball.

"Back in the 1970s, tennis was one of the best ways to stay fit," said Annette Buck, director of adult and senior tennis for the Southern California Tennis Assn. "But people are making other choices now. You can do yoga, Pilates or hire a personal trainer. I don't think it's fun to go on the treadmill, but you can do it in a more concentrated period of time, and at any time. People's lives are much busier."

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