Each time Jimmie McDaniel hit a ground stroke, 14-year-old Desmond Margetson was mesmerized. Margetson was working as a ball boy at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in New York City, and on this day in 1940 he was shagging balls for an exhibition match later hailed by a local paper as "the most important sports and social event to hit Harlem in many years."
The match pitted McDaniel—the best black amateur player in the U.S.—against Don Budge, the reigning professional champion. Budge won the match, but McDaniel awed the young ball boy with his strokes. "He had an effortless rhythmic motion that culminated with this incredible crack of a whip, like a rifle shot," Margetson, 68, recalls. "His balance and body position were perfect."
That year Margetson joined the Cosmopolitan Club, making full use of his five-dollar membership fee. But in November, as the temperature dipped below freezing, he had to turn his attention to the club's skating program. "The only thing they could do was to pour water on the court."
Margetson was not alone in his frustration that tennis was only a warm-weather sport. But he was alone in his desire—and ability—to do something about it. Following an impressive amateur and collegiate tennis career (Margetson played No. 1 for New York University in 1948), he focused on his career as an engineer. In 1956, after being hired by the American Machine and Foundry to design a temporary missile shelter for the Air Force, Margetson was struck with an idea: how about a temporary shelter for urban tennis players? He suggested to Walter Bird, a fellow engineer who was building and testing inflatable shelters in Buffalo, that he could help introduce a version of Bird's design to the tennis community.
In 1957, in an article for World Tennis magazine titled, "Tennis: An All-Season Sport," Margetson wrote, "The winter lay-off has always left tennis defenseless against pirating from other sports." That wasn't a revelation. But Margetson's solution—air-supported structures that could be dismantled in summer—certainly was.
Margetson spent a year working with Bird to promote the bubble. A construction company in Queens, N.Y., was prepared to buy the design but was foiled by New York City's stringent building codes. Seven years later, in 1965, John V. Lindsay became mayor, and building codes were magically loosened. " Lindsay becoming mayor was the whole thing," Margetson says. "He was a big tennis fan."
The first bubble in New York, built by Birdair Structures, opened on Dec. 17, 1965, at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. The New York Herald Tribune credited tennis players Gardnar Mulloy and Billy Talbert—who had entered into a partnership with Birdair's president. Bird—with introducing the structure, entirely overlooking the man who had actually conceived it. Talbert admits his role was minimal: "It's [Margetson] whom people should be thankful to."
Finally, last Aug. 19, at the Bronx Pro Tennis Classic, Margetson received his due. He was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the U.S. Tennis Association in the form of a plaque that he displays in his Harlem apartment.
"The plaque means everything to me," says Margetson, now an engineer for the New York City Department of Transportation and an accomplished runner who has completed nine New York City Marathons. "It shows that as a tennis contribution, the bubble was a success."
Bill Shannon, president of the New York Sports Museum & Hall of Fame, says Margetson's contributions are worthy of consideration for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. "He has given tens of thousands of players the opportunity to play tennis year-round," Shannon says.