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Jacksonville Public Parks Tennis - Rich Past, Bright Future

October 12, 2007 10:54 AM

Published on October 10, 2007
By Richard Vach

A public park and tennis facility named after the great-grandnephew of Daniel Boone? Chris Evert as a junior playing a Jacksonville public parks tournament? A youth center built underground, beneath a pool, next to the tennis courts at Southside Park?

Jacksonville has a rich public parks tennis history, and currently boasts more than 160 public courts. The city shows no sign of toning down it's love affair with the sport. To the contrary, while some Florida cities are trimming tennis and recreation programs in response to state legislation demanding city budget cuts, Jacksonville public tennis remains on an upward trend.

Three public facilities have added or built new courts within the past two years, and the City of Jacksonville earlier this year entered into a partnership pilot program with USTA Florida (United States Tennis Association) to create additional after-school programs.

"I'm excited about it because it's a new direction for us," said Jacksonville Department of Parks, Recreation, Entertainment and Conservation Division Chief Denise Ostertag. "We have a lot of tennis courts in the city, and some of them are in the same locations as our community centers where we have after-school programs. So we talked about how we can take advantage of that both from our recreational side during the day as well as using their [USTA teaching] pros."

City of Jacksonville parks and recreation staff will attend USTA workshops to be trained as community tennis teachers to teach the fundamentals of beginning tennis, then children that show an interest can move on to working with certified USTA pros.

"We're going to start it as a pilot program with our home-school recreations programs where the parents are involved as well, and if they want their children to move on and work with the pros, we have their buy-in for that already," Ostertag said. "We're in the early talking stages, we're going to try it at a couple of the centers and see what happens."

USTA Florida hopes the pilot program is a first step in getting Duval County Public Schools involved in the USTA Florida School Tennis program like other large districts in Miami and Tampa. The USTA Florida mission is to "introduce tennis to children of all ages in physical education classes, before and after school, at recess and lunchtime, on Saturdays, and during the summer in all K-12 schools across our great state." USTA Florida provides free tennis teacher training, and free and discounted racquets and other equipment for participating schools and districts.

Over the last two years the City of Jacksonville has added courts at Huffman Boulevard Park and Blue Cypress Park (University Blvd.), each with two lighted hardcourts, and nine new lighted hardcourts at the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation Emmett Reed Center, scheduled for completion at the end of October.

"That was public and private money -- it was grant funded as well as some bond money that went into it and we the city have done the courts piece of it by cobbling together all these pots of money," Ostertag said of the Malivai Washington complex. "And they're privately raising the funds for their new center."

Eight courts are also planned for Sheffield Park on the Northside.

"At Sheffield Park we will be having a tennis complex with a pro shop there as well, but that's probably 2-3 years down the road depending on the impact of the funding," Ostertag said. "Right now we have enough money for the first phase, which is the infrastructure for the park. It's going to really be an unbelievable park in that it's going to have every type of recreational venue you can image out there, from courts to fields to indoor swimming pool, community center. All those are in the master plan, it's just a matter of raising the funds to get there."

Sheffield Park will be a jewel on Jacksonville's rapidly-expanding Northside, but the city's two largest public facilities remain historic jewels of their own for players who take advantage of the public facilities located near downtown:

Located in the San Marco section of South Jacksonville off Hendricks Avenue, Southside Park consists of six hardcourts and six claycourts; but this has not always been the case at the historic location.

Part of a Spanish land grant made to William Hendricks in 1797, the park was first built on the property in 1925 when the City of South Jacksonville (1907-1932) was a separate municipality. Originally named Central Park, the facility contained tennis, basketball and horseshoe courts, winding walks and abundant landscaping.

Anyone who has played at Southside Park is familiar with the sounds of passing trains, and it was the Florida East Coast Railroad that first set up a railroad yard near the park in the early 1900s. The park doubled in size according to Jacksonville records sometime between 1930 and 1955 when the City of Jacksonville annexed the area and acquired additional land. The park grew again in 1971 when the city closed a portion of Thacker Avenue and added the land to the facility.

The city operated five hardcourts at the park, and a large swimming pool was added in 1956, used by the swim and tennis teams at Landon High School (which changed to Landon Middle School in 1965).

Landon's junior-varsity football team also played its home games on Southside's multi-use fields. In 1991 the city demolished the pool and re-surfaced the hardcourts, adding a hitting wall. Five years later the city added six claycourts to the complex. Two years later the city completed the final phase of a planned renovation, a new entrance building for the tennis complex including an office for the tennis director, restrooms and shower facilities.

Current Director of Tennis Harrell Thomas was hired in 1986 and has worked to establish a citywide junior program open to children, regardless of their ability to pay. The park is also utilized by the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation, offering after-school tennis and tutoring to inner-city children.

Located in the Avondale section of West Jacksonville, Boone Park is Jacksonville's busiest public facility, consisting of 14 claycourts and two hardcourts, all lighted. Elias Jaudon, one of the founders of the Baptist Church in Jacksonville, purchased the land in 1850 as part of the Magnolia Plantation which covered more than 1,000 acres.

In the early 1900s the area housing communities of Riverside Heights, Stockton Place and Avondale were established. The exclusive Avondale area was Jacksonville's first neighborhood to employ principles of the "City Beautiful Movement" that became popular across America, emphasizing larger lots, building setback restrictions, and lavish landscaping. During the 1920s the majority of the nearby Avondale shopping area was built along St. Johns Avenue.

In 1923 the parks commissioner lobbied for creation of the park, and in 1926 the city purchased 32 acres for $61,000 from William E. Boone and four other owners. Stipulations included the land be used only for park purposes, and be named "Boone's Park." Boone was the great nephew of legendary American pioneer and hunter Daniel Boone, and moved to Jacksonville in 1884, purchasing and rebuilding locomotives.

City records are hazy as to when the first tennis courts were constructed, but they existed in 1946 and apparently were in need of improvement. That year the city's Playground and Recreation Board authorized improvement for the courts, which were stand-alone, without an adjacent building or pro shop. Four years later the Boone Park Clubhouse was constructed, housing men's and women's locker rooms, a lounge area, and a "clubroom" for civic and social organization meetings.

In 1950, Boone Park's tennis facility was comprised of four lighted claycourts. With the addition of the clubhouse it became the site for most of the city's major tennis tournaments, taking over for Riverside Park, which also had lighted courts and a clubhouse  and previously was the largest public tennis facility in town.

By 1969 the park had either eight or 10 courts according to public records, with additional park amenities such as the then-named "tot lot." A number of improvements were made to the tennis facility in the 1980s including the addition of a hitting wall in 1981, lighting upgrades in 1982 and 1984, a clubhouse remodeling in 1983 (and 1993), and court resurfacing and re-fencing in 1985-86. In 1998 the city designated Riverside/Avondale a historic district, which also includes and protects Boone Park.

Tommy Shattuck has served as director of tennis at Boone Park from 1971 to present, originally joining the park as assistant pro in 1969 to Lef Carroll, who was director from 1965 to 1971. Carroll previously taught tennis at the Huguenot Park tennis complex in Jacksonville Beach. During past years Boone Park has hosted a number of tournaments attended by Florida and national celebrities, including Chris Evert who played in the Lef Carroll Superseries event, and Billie Jean King who conducted a clinic at the park and played an exhibition against Aussie legend Margaret Court Smith.

Through the First Coast Tennis Foundation, Jacksonville already has the largest Junior Team Tennis participation of any Florida city. Now city officials want to increase the public parks involvement with junior tennis.

"I think where our future is, it's the youth involvement," Ostertag says. "That's my goal, to get more kids involved and enjoying the game of tennis if they're interested. What I'm finding in our programs is that there is an explosion of growth also in the other sports -- our football numbers, our baseball numbers, our soccer numbers are off the charts, for both adults and children. But what we've got to do is nurture our tennis a little bit more, and that's not something they can go out and just 'join up,' we've got to give them the opportunities."

Jacksonville has 22 after-school programs in the same location as or located near tennis courts, making for a natural transition to junior programs.

"What a great opportunity for us to at least give them a taste of it, see if they like it, and if they do, show them how they can get more involved," Ostertag says. "Now with the USTA Florida and having this working relationship, I think the sky's the limit with that."

Linda Curtis, director of community development for USTA Florida, echoes the sentiment of positive growth in Northeast Florida.

"USTA Florida is encouraged by the collaborative efforts being made by First Coast Tennis Foundation and the City of Jacksonville Parks and Recreation Department to grow tennis at the public parks," Curtis says. "By working together, both organizations can effectively meet many of the tennis needs of children and adults living in Jacksonville. We hope that this relationship will have the same success that other Florida community tennis associations have had when delivering quality tennis programs at the public parks. It is a win-win partnership that benefits the whole community."

The city is also making strides to revive public tournament play, last year debuting the "Mayor's Tennis Cup."

"We would love to build on the success of that, we had an adult and teen division as well, and we look to expanding that in the future," says Ostertag, who acknowledges the city is ready to match the facilities and level of adult and junior activity in South Florida cities. "In a lot of cities the city tennis is right up there with other sports. It's premier, it's where we want to be as well. We've already got the complexes, we just need to spread the word a little bit more. I'm excited about the opportunities here."

This article appears in the October issue of JAX Tennis Magazine, Northeast Florida's tennis source, www.jaxtennismagazine.com.






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