What a special experience it is to play tennis in Central Park. The day before yesterday I had the opportunity to do so. Played two hours of doubles with three of my boyhood friends, all good tennis players in their day.
Let me set the scene for you.
New York City at this time of year is particularly welcoming. Fall has not really come yet. The temperature today almost reached 80 degrees. Sunny skies and a slight breeze. Not bad for the beginning of October.
Central Park is arguably the crown jewel of New York, or for sure for the Borough of Manhattan. Its 843 acres of park land provides a breathing room for residents and visitors to the Big Apple. More than 35 million people visit and use the Park each year, making it the most visited urban park in the United States. The park has so many interesting components to it. Jogging paths, bicycle routes, reservoirs, benches, lakes, paddle boats, restaurants, carousel, baseball diamonds, concert in the park venues, statues, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pedicabs, carriage horse rides, plants, gardens, trees, skating rinks, swimming pools, kids’ playground equipment, basketball courts, horseback riding trails, grass to just lay on… and tennis courts.
Central Park was designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1857, some 160 years ago. It has been the backdrop for more than 240 movies and TV shows.
The Park has seen a number of changes over the years. For example, it was nowhere near as pedestrian friendly in the past, when cars were allowed on its roads day and night. Now, the roads are mostly used by joggers and cyclists, especially on weekends and in the evenings.
The Park’s maintenance is much better today than in the past, thanks to the creation of the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit corporation which has one mission only, the maintenance and operation of Central Park. This nonprofit savior of the Park was the outgrowth of an initiative created by then Park Commissioner Gordon Davis in the late 1970’s. Gordon was two years ahead of me at Williams College. Previously, the City Department of Parks had responsibility, and you can imagine what the Park looked like. With a city-wide focus, and limited funding the Park did not get the attention it needed. Today, the Park is in excellent shape. Grass fields such as Sheep Meadow have been restored.
The Park today is much safer than it was in years past.
Part of the long history of the Park is its tennis facilities. They have not changed in years. Still 30 courts, all outdoors, with no lighting. Side by side, with no separation from court to court. Located just north of the reservoir and its popular jogging track the circumnavigates it, the tennis courts stand out as one of the few things in Central Park that has not changed over the years.
The Central Park Tennis Center building that houses the office, shop and locker rooms is the same building that has been there for years. The system for who gets to play on which courts at what time of day on which day of the week has not changed ever. For example, before you can play on the courts you must have your shoes examined to make sure that you are using the appropriate, allowed footwear. Another example, when the hour is over, the loud horn barks from the building signaling the time to get off the courts, or to get on, depending upon your reserved time slot.
The other thing that is very unusual in this day and age is the composition of the courts. Most courts today are all weather courts. Not 26 of the 30 courts in Central Park. They are made out of composition material with a clay base. And have been all the years that the tennis courts have been in the Park.
Years ago, in fact to be exact, 45 years ago when I lived on West 90th Street just a few brownstones away from Central Park West, I would play tennis all the time in Central Park because the courts were so close, being adjacent to 96th street approximately.
Yesterday, allowed me to relive those experiences for at least two hours. What a treat.
To be able to play at all at this age is something to be thankful for. Admittedly none of us are quite as fleet a foot as we once were.
Another thing that was kind of cool was that at least three of the four of us had tennis whites on. Yes, a white shirt, white shorts, white socks and white tennis shoes. We were the only ones playing on 30 courts wearing all tennis whites. Old school, and you have to love it.
All four of us played together over 55 years ago, and this was the first time that the first time since then that we have played together since. Pretty special.
Another cool part of the late afternoon match was that my daughter, Kelsey surprised us, by coming over from her apartment on East 90th street to watch at least some of our match.
Tennis in Central Park. A pretty special experience.